Archive for the ‘Mario Tronti’ Category

Four Tronti articles 1959-1965

Posted: October 8, 2013 in Mario Tronti

Four Tronti articles from the second issue of Metropolis June 1978. Includes:

1) “Marxismo e sociologia” (Roma aprile 1959)

2) Intervento al Seminario Santa Severa” (primavera 1962)

3) “Il Partito in fabbrica” (Torino aprile 1964)

4) Intervento su “Partito unico – Partito di classe” (Roma giugno 1965)

This is the introduction to Tronti’s essay Marx, Labour-Power, Working Class (1965)

From Libcom:

Please note that this translation is based on the French version, and should be superseded by a complete English translation of the original Italian, which we hope will not be delayed any longer. The second-order translation that follows is intended to provide more resources to the English discussion until Workers and Capital finally becomes available. The French translation, available onMultitudes, is preceded by the following note: “This text is included in the chapter of Workers and Capital titled ‘First Theses,’ to which it constitutes a kind of introduction. The first edition of Workers and Capital was published in 1966 by Einaudi. The French translation, by Yann Moulier in collaboration with G. Bezza, was published in 1977 by Christian Bourgois.”

Let’s start with the fundamental discovery which, according to Marx, is at the base of all of Capital, the Doppelcharakter of labor represented in commodities. That the commodity must be something double, at once use-value and exchange-value, this was already evident even at Marx’s time. But that labor expressed in value possesses different characteristics from those of labor productive of use-value – this is what had remained unknown to thought in those days. Right at the beginning of Capital, Marx says: “I was the first to point out and to examine critically this twofold nature of the labour contained in commodities” (zwieschlächtige Natur: nature at once double, divided, and antagonistic). In the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, he in fact attempted an analysis of the commodity “as labor presenting a double form”; analysis of use-value as real labor or productive activity in accordance to an end, and analysis of exchange-value as labor-time or equal social labor; it ended finally with a critical balance sheet of 150 years of classical economy which extended, in England, from William Petty to Ricardo, and in France, from Boisguillebert to Sismondi. Marx’s discovery is, on this terrain, “the transition from concrete labour to labour which produces exchange-value, i.e., the basic form of bourgeois labour.”1

Since 1859, the Marxian concept of labor productive of value has presented three well-defined characteristics: it is simple labor, social labor, and general abstract labor. Each of these characteristics is in itself a process, which immediately presents itself as intimately linked to the processes of the other two: it is the ensemble of these processes which permits the passage from precapitalist forms of labor to their capitalist forms. And each process is an objective fact governed ineluctably by the laws of development of a nascent capitalism. Simple labor implies thereduction of all types of labor to labor which is simple, undifferentiated, uniform, always qualitatively equal and only different quantitatively; complex labour is nothing other than simple labor to the nth power; labor of greater intensity, of a specific greater gravity, is always reducible, which means that it must always be reduced to “unskilled labour”2, to unqualified labor, deprived of quality. But labour without quality and “human labor in general” are the same thing: not labor of different subjects, but of different individuals “as mere organs of this labor.”  “This abstraction, human labour in general, exists in the form of average labour which, in a given society, the average person can perform, productive expenditure of a certain amount of human muscles, nerves, brain, etc.”3 The specific form in which labor acquires its simple character is therefore that of human labor in general. The reduction to simple labor is a reduction to human abstract labor. The same goes for the socialcharacter of labor productive of value. The conditions of this labor – those which flow from the analysis of value – are social determinations of labor, or determinations of social labor. In one or the other case, they are not social tout court; they become so through a particular process. And what is the particularity of this social character? Two things: (1) the undifferentiated simplicity of labor which is the equivalent character of the labor of different individuals, which is to say the social character of the equivalence of the labor of each; (2) the general character of individual labor which appears as its social character since it is certainly the labor of the individual, but also the labor of each, not differentiated from the labor of another. In the logical passage between these two things, which is for that matter the historical passage of the social determinations of labor to the determinations of social labor, differentexchange-values find a single general equivalent: which is only a socialmagnitude insofar as it is a general magnitude. But for a product to assume the form of a general equivalent, it is necessary for the labor itself of the individual to assume a general abstract character. The specific form in which labor acquires its social character, is therefore the form of abstract generality. The particular trait of this social labor is to be here also human abstract labor. Simple labor and social labor – as soon as they produce value – reduce themselves to abstract labor, to labor in general. It is therefore false to see in labor the unique source of material wealth; since we can only speak here, again and always, of concrete labor, creative of use-values. It is of abstract labor as the source of exchange value that we must speak instead. Concrete labor realizes itself in the infinite variety of its use-values; abstract labor realizes itself in the equivalence of commodities as general equivalents. Labor creative of use-values is the natural condition of human life, of the organic exchange between man and nature; labor creative of exchange values, on the other hand, refers to a specifically social form of labor. The first is particular labor that is divided into an infinity of types of labor; the second is always general labor, abstract and equivalent. “Labour as a source of material wealth was well known both to Moses, the law-giver, and to Adam Smith, the customs official.”4 Labor creative of value is the first radical discovery from the working-class viewpoint applied to capitalist society.

With the appearance of the first volume of Capital, Marx wrote to Engels: “The best points in my book are: 1. (this is fundamental to all understanding of the facts) the two-fold character of labour according to whether it is expressed in use-value or exchange-value, which is brought out in the very First Chapter; 2. the treatment of surplus-value regardless of its particular forms as profit, interest, ground rent, etc”5. A few months later – in another letter – he criticized Dühring’s report on capital for having failed to gather the “fundamentally new elements” of the book, namely: “(1) That in contrast to all former political economy, which from the very outset treats the different fragments of surplus value with their fixed forms of rent, profit, and interest as already given, I first deal with the general form of surplus value, in which all these fragments are still undifferentiated – in solution, as it were. (2) That the economists, without exception, have missed the simple point that if the commodity has a double character – use value and exchange value – then the labour represented by the commodity must also have a two-fold character, while the mere analysis of labour as such, as in Smith, Ricardo, etc, is bound to come up everywhere against inexplicable problems”6. We will return later to the organic connection that intimately links the content of these two discoveries: the concept of labor-power, and that of surplus value. For the moment, we will hasten in finding the origin of the first, in the works of Marx and in his sources.

“If then we disregard the use-value of commodities, only one property remains, that of being products of labour. But even the product of labour has already been transformed in our hands. If we make abstraction from its use-value, we abstract also from the material constituents and forms which make it a use-value…The useful character of the kinds of labour embodied in them also disappears; this in turn entails the disappearance of the different concrete forms of labour. They can no longer be distinguished, but are altogether reduced to the same kind of labour, human labour in the abstract.” What is then, at this stage, the residue of the products of labor? Nothing if not “the same phantom-like objectivity; they are merely congealed quantities of homogeneous human labour.” There is only “human labour-power expended without regard to the form of its expenditure.” It is only as crystals of this common social substance – human labor-power– that things are “values, commodity-values.”7

A common social substance (gemeinschaftliche gesellschaftliche Substanz) of things, common to commodities, which is to say common to the products of labor and not “the common social substance of exchange value” (see the beginning of the “Critical Notes on Adolph Wagner’sTreatise on Political Economy”)8, but wertblindende Substanz (valorizing substance): such is the first definition of the concept of labor-power that one finds in Capital. Marx says here Arbeitskraft; in Theories of Surplus Value he used instead the term Arbeitsvermögen; in the Grundrisse that ofArbeitsfähigkeit. The concept is the same. The philological passage from one term to another is not what interests us. In Marx, the distinction between labor and labor-power is found already achieved in all the preparatory works to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy9; given that all these works cover a decade (from ’49 to ’59), it is just after 48 that we are able to situate the definitive Marxian discovery of the concept of labor-power, in all its scope. It is evident that one can discover germs of this discovery in all the works before this date. These testify to the internal development of the concept of labor-power, of its internal and progressive specification, which enriches itself more and more with scientific determinations until the decisive encounter, which at the heart of the revolutionary experience of ’48, will identify it definitively with the concept of the working class.

In certain notebooks of excerpts from the works of the greatest economists compiled by Marx in Paris in 1844, which served therefore in the formulation of the 1844 Manuscripts, we find already the concept (the word) Erwerbsarbeit, which we think can be translated directly by “industrial labor.” In “industrial labor” we have, says Marx: “1) estrangement and fortuitous connection between labour and the subject who labours; 2) estrangement and fortuitous connection between labour and the object of labour; 3) that the worker’s role is determined by social needs which, however, are alien to him and a compulsion to which he submits out of egoistic need and necessity, and which have for him only the significance of a means of satisfying his dire need, just as for them he exists only as a slave of their needs; 4) that to the worker the maintenance of his individual existence appears to be the purpose of his activity and what he actually does is regarded by him only as a means; that he carries on his life’s activity in order to earn means of subsistence.” In such an analysis, the unity of human labor comes only from its division. Once the division of labor is accepted, the product, the material of private property, becomes more and more the signification of the equivalent. It is in money that the equivalent acquires its existence as equivalent. And in money is manifested already the total domination of the object, having become alien, over man: “The separation of work from itself (Trennung der Arbeit von sich selbst)  – separation of the worker from the capitalist – separation of labour and capital.” For the economist, there is the division between production and consumption, and as intermediary between the two, exchange or distribution. But “the separation of production and consumption, of action and spirit, in different individuals and in the same individual, is the separation of labourfrom its object and from itself as something spiritual.” It is the separation of “labour from labour” (Trennung der Arbeit von Arbeit)10

In the first of the 1844 Manuscripts, in the chapter on the wage, Marx writes: “It goes without saying that the proletarian (Proletarier), i.e., the man who, being without capital and rent, lives purely by labour, and by a one-sided, abstract labour (rein von der Arbeit und einer einseitigen, abstrakten Arbeit lebt), is considered by political economy only as a worker (Arbeiter)… In political economy labour occurs only in the form of activity as a source of livelihood (unter der Gestalt der Erwerbstätigkeit).” But if we “rise above the level of political economy,” that’s when two decisive questions arise, and it is not by accident that they appear to Marx at this precise place: “(1) What in the evolution of mankind is the meaning of this reduction of the greater part of mankind to abstract labour (auf die abstrakte Arbeit)? (2) What are the mistakes committed by the piecemeal reformers, who either want to raise wages and in this way to improve the situation of the working class, or regard equality of wages (as Proudhon does) as the goal of social revolution?”11 Only much later will Marx give an otherwise decisive response to this question, in a fully satisfying fashion, in Capital. In their strongly “ideological” form, the Manuscriptscontain practically nothing more than the direction, already indubitably present, of future research. “True, it is as a result of the movement of private property that we have obtained the concept of alienated labor (of alienated life) in political economy. But on analysis of this concept it becomes clear that though private property appears to be the reason, the cause of alienated labor, it is rather its consequence, just as the gods are originally not the cause but the effect of man’s intellectual confusion. Later this relationship becomes reciprocal. Only at the culmination of the development of private property does this, its secret, appear again, namely, that on the one hand it is the product of alienated labor, and that on the other it is the means by which labor alienates itself, the realization of this alienation.”12

The reversal of the relation between labor and capital is entirely contained here in germ; we can already gather it in all the possibilities that it offers of a revolutionary approach to method, which opens wide all doors to immediately subversive solutions, as much at the level of theoretical research as that of practical struggle. We will demonstrate that the conducting thread of all of Marx’s work can be found here. However, it is already possible for us to argue that, in this work, this discovery has not gone further than a brilliant intuition, always submitted to the uncertainties of the objective path of the history of capital, a path more slow, complex, indirect and unsure than the one that Marx’s working-class viewpoint could consider. This strategic reversal of the relation between labor and capital, we must today rediscover completely, and repropose totally as a method of analysis and a guide to action. If we have a minimal tactical influence on the present situation, the truth of this principle leaps before the eyes. The state of maximum development of capital reveals, but in the facts, its secret, and emphasizes it.

“The subjective essence of private property –private property as activity for itself, as subject, as person – is labour.” Only political economy has recognized labor for its principle: and thus it has revealed itself as a product of private property and modern industry. The fetishism of the mercantilist monetary system knew property as a solely objective essence of wealth. The Physiocratic doctrine represents a moment of decisive passage towards the discovery of a subjective existence of wealth in labor, but it was more about a concrete, particular labor, linked as far as its material to a natural determinate element. Starting with Adam Smith, political economy recognized the general essence of wealth, and was then led to “the raising up of labour in its total absoluteness (i.e., its abstraction) as the principle.” “It is argued against physiocracy that agriculture, from the economic point of view – that is to say, from the only valid point of view – does not differ from any other industry; and that the essence of wealth, therefore, is not a specific form of labour bound to a particular element – a particular expression of labour – but labour in general (Arbeit uberhaupt).” In the process of scientific understanding of the subjective essence of private property, labor only appears at the start as agricultural labor, but it is then recognized as general labor. At this stage, “All wealth has becomeindustrial wealth, the wealth of labour, and industry is accomplished labour, just as the factory system is the perfected essence of industry, that is of labour, and just as industrial capital is the accomplished objective form of private property.”13

In the Arbeiterslohn manuscript, dated December 1847, we read at the beginning: “die menschliche Tätigkeit = Ware” (“Human activity = commodity”).” We read later: “The worker (der Arbeiter: the laborer, not labor) becomes an increasingly one-sided productive force (Productivkfraft) which produces as much as possible in as little time as possible. Skilled labour increasingly transformed into simple labour.” We see already appearing the theme of the general human activity of the worker reduced to the commodity. And the theme of the most complex labor reduced to the simplest. We find, additionally, at the end of the manuscript, a paragraph placed in parentheses by Marx, and carrying the indication that he wants to consider the problem “in general form”: “since labour has become a commodity and as such subject to free competition, one seeks to produce it as cheaply as possible, i.e., at the lowest possible production cost. All physical labour has thereby become infinitely easy and simple for the future (künftige, says the Werke edition, the MEGA has Kräftige – healthy, vigorous) organisation of society.”14. Here then is already the theme of social labor, even if its particular content causes problems and is not yet well defined.

This manuscript, Wages, carries the trace of the meetings that Marx held in 1847 with the German Workers’ Society in Brussels, in the course of which he developed some points which he would not take up any further, even in the famous articles of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (April 1849) on “Wage Labor and Capital.” If we subject these manuscripts of ’47 to the same treatment that Engels reserved for the articles of ’49 – namely, substitute Arbeitskraft for Arbeit, every time that it is a question of abstract labor, which is to say everywhere – we get the following result: the concept of labor-power (and the word itself) is found in the work of Marx, not only before Capital, but also before the Manifesto, and as a specific discovery, leading back – according to us – to the first critique of political economy, still insufficient, of the 1844 Manuscripts. “What the economists had considered as the cost of production of ‘labour’ was really the cost of production, not of ‘labour,’ but of the living labourer himself. And what this labourer sold to the capitalist was not his labour… But… He hires out or sells his labour-power. But this labour-power has grown up with his person and is inseparable from it,” says Engels in the 1891 introduction to “Wage Labor and Capital.”15 Here resides the whole difference between labor and labor-power. Present in the concept of labor-power is the figure of the worker, while in that of labor this is not the case. And the figure of the worker, who, in selling his own “labor,” sells himself as “labor-power,” we find entirely contained in the works of Marx, starting with the analyses of his youth on alienated labor. This is indeed the precondition for the whole course: in the conditions imposed by capital, the alienation of labor and the alienation of the worker are one and the same thing. Otherwise it would have been necessary to conclude that this analysis does not concern capitalist society, but society in general; not the worker, but man in general: this is the error of those who try to find in the young Marx nothing but an old philosophy of totality. The limit of the works of Marx, before ’48, is found elsewhere. It is the still insufficient definition of labor-power as commodity, or rather the absence of an analysis of the special characteristics of this commodity, and of the consideration of labor-power as a “special” commodity. Before ’48, we already find in Marx abstract labor as labor-power, and then as commodity. Only the pivotal moment of the Revolution of 1848 will bring forth in full clarity, in Marx, the theoretical progression which leads to the discovery of the special content of the labor-power commodity, since it is linked no longer only – through the alienation of labor – to the historical figure of the worker, but the birth of capital itself – through the production of surplus value. Almost at the beginning of “Wage Labor and Capital,” we find this luminous affirmation: “after our readers have seen the class struggle of the year 1848 develop into colossal political proportions, it is time to examine more closely the economic conditions themselves upon which is founded the existence of the capitalist class and its class rule, as well as the slavery of the workers.” For us, it is only in ’48 – or rather after June ’48 – that we can see produced, for the first time in Marx’s thought, the encounter of the concept of labor-power with the movements of the working class. Here begins the true Marxian history of the labor-power commodity, which reappears, with all its “special characteristics,” that is with its specifically working-class content, but this time in explicitly defined terms, in the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and later in Capital. In this sense, the bourgeoisie was right to lament, even though it had beaten the workers on the ground: “Damned be June!”

Labor as abstract labor, and therefore as labor-power – we find this already in Hegel. Labor-power – and not only labor – as commodity, we find this already in Ricardo. The commodity labor power as working class: this is the discovery of Marx. The double character of labor is only the preliminary. It does not constitute the discovery, but only the means of reaching it. We do not pass from labor to working class, whereas we can do this if we start with labor-power. To speak no longer of labor, but of labor-power, this is to speak of the worker and no longer of labor. Labor-power, living labor, and the living worker, are synonymous terms. The critique of the expression “value of labor,” the definition of the “value of labor-power” permits the passage to the concept of surplus-value. Pre-Marxist socialist ideology (like everything that is post-Marxist) has never taken this path. It has therefore never put its finger on the historical existence of the working class. And what is the latter, at this level, if not social labor-power, productive of surplus-value? And from surplus-value to profit, and from profit to capital, such is the path that it follows. The living commodity which is the socially organized worker, reveals itself as being not only the place of theoretical origin, but also the historico-practical prerequisite that we call the fundamental articulation of capitalist society (Glied and Grund at the same time)16

But these are the conclusion of the analysis: it is still necessary for us to demonstrate the premises. This is not from the scholastic necessity of philologically specifying the terms of the problem that arises from the search for the principal sources of the concept of labor in Marx; but rather the practically necessity of isolating his true discoveries, to be able to recognize and develop them, as well as the deliberate choice of separating on the spot everything that painfully comes to life in the field of working-class thought, so as to use, for our own ends, elements of the opposing thought. What Schumpeter called “the impressive synthesis that is Marx’s work” presents almost always the following characteristic: it is not each particular discovery that counts, but the overall use made of each discovery by the other, their overall  rearrangement according to a single direction of thought, thanks to the relatively unilateral orientation given by an exclusive point of view. This is where all the sectarianism of working-class science resides. Marx provided a model, which he himself was not always capable of following in his analysis and its conclusions. No Marxist after him did. The only decisive exception: Lenin and his revolution. In this case, the method of unilateral synthesis, the path of access to the comprehensive possession of social reality, starting from a deliberate tendentious choice, led in practice to concrete forms of political organization. This is the most important passage that there has been – since Marx – in the history of working-class thought. From that day, the bourgeois mystification of an immediate identification of the particular interests of a class with the general interest of society proved itself to be no longer possible, at the theoretical level as much as the practical level. The control of society in general is to be attained by struggle, when the domination of a particular class imposes itself. On this field, two viewpoints almost equal in force and power collide. The universal reign of ideology collapses with a crash. There is no longer room for two positions of opposing classes, each looking to impose, by authority and violence, its exclusive domination over society. It was to this that Lenin, in practice, constrained the capitalists of his day, in organizing the revolution prematurely. The Marxian analysis of capitalist society was also “premature” with regard to its epoch. Here is why Capitaland the October Revolution had the same historical destiny. It is easy to enumerate the enormous historical and logical contradictions that oppose one another: in the end the conclusion to be drawn is that all this does not make a dent, in the slightest bit, in a crumb of their validity. The truth is that it is a matter of a single method applied at two different levels: the theoretical and practical usage of a network of material conditions (series of concepts or series of circumstances) operating by a rigorous working-class viewpoint, inscribing itself in a process of subversion of capitalist society. The treatment that Marx intended for the categories of political economy, or the concepts of classical philosophy is the same that Lenin reserved for the two middle layers of the old society, or the historical parties of the old State. Marx powerfully discovered atactical moment of research: the practical capacity to use certain results obtained by the science of the epoch, to reverse them in the opposed dimension of a strategic alternative. Lenin – the only Marxist to have understood Marx on this point – directly translated this theoretical method into laws for action. The Leninist discovery of the tactic is only the extension of a theoretical discovery of Marx in the domain of practice: namely, the universal, conscious, realist, and never ideological character of the working-class viewpoint of capitalist society. We want to get as far as demonstrating that “all value in labor” and “all power to the soviets” are one and the same thing: two watchwords that recover a moment of tactical struggle, and at the same time contradict none of the possible strategic developments: two laws of movement which are not those of capitalist society (this is where Marx’s error was, since here we risk losing the tactical moment), but those of the working class internal to capitalist society (and this is the Leninist correction brought to Marx).

At this stage, to clarify the problem, it becomes indispensable to have a word about Marx’s sources, regarding the specific and decisive question of the definition of the concept of labor. The Marx/Hegel relation has long been studied. On the other hand, on the Marx/Ricardo relation, almost nothing has been done. The most interesting thing consists in studying the Hegel/Ricardo relation. If we had the time and the political tranquility, we might think of proceeding with a detailed comparative analysis of the Hegelian Phenomenology and Ricardo’s Principles: we would find that the material treated is identical, with an identical mode of treatment (method), and different only in the “form” with which it is treated, which has oriented them towards different disciplines, unable to communicate with each other. Here we limit ourselves to raising the Hegel/Ricardo relation, in its objective terms, by means of a separate although parallel analysis. Marx remarks: “If the Englishman transforms men into hats, the German transforms hats into ideas. The Englishman is Ricardo, rich banker and distinguished economist; the German is Hegel, simple professor at the University of Berlin.”17

Factory and Society

Posted: June 13, 2013 in Mario Tronti

Factory and Society.pdf (1962)

At the end of the III section of Capital, after finishing the section on absolute surplus value, Marx returns to distinguish the two faces of capitalist production and, as a result, the two points of view from which the capitalist production of commodities can be considered: labour process and process of valorization. In the first, the worker does not treat the means of production as capital, the worker consumes the means of production as material of his productive activity; in the second, “it is not the worker who uses the means of production, but the means of production which use the worker”, and hence it is capital that consumes labour-power. It is true that already in the labour process capital develops as command over labour, of labour power and, therefore, the worker; it is only in the valorization process that there develops a coercive relation, which forces the working class to surplus-labour and, from there, the production of surplus value. Capital is able to capture, it in its own way, the unity of the labour process with the process of valorization; and captures it in an ever greater manner the more that capitalist production develops and the more that the capitalist form of production grasps all the other spheres of society, invading the whole network of social relations.  Capital puts labour- and is forced to put it- as the creator of value, but then sees value- and is forced to see it- as the valorization of itself. Capital sees the labour process solely as a process of valorization, it sees labour-power solely as capital; it alters the relation between living labour and dead labour, between the creative force of value and value; it can do so to the degree in which it is able to recuperate the whole process of social labour within the process of valorization of capital, in the degree that it can integrate labour-power within capital.

In the bourgeois mystification of capitalist relations, these last two processes go together and in a parallel manner, they both appear objectively and necessary. The correct way to see them is to see them distinct in their unity, to the point of opposing them as contradictory processes which exclude each other alternatively; material action of the dissolution of capital implanted in the decisive point of its system.

The method through which previous/dead labour is transformed everyday into capital is clear. This is the motive why bourgeois economists eulogize the merits of dead/previous labour. In fact, it is this, under the form of the means of labour, which collaborates once again in the living labour process; hence why the importance of labour is attributed to the figure of capital which it assumes. The capitalist form of labour coincides in this case with the means of production in which labour has objectified itself with to the point that the practical agents of capitalist production and its ideologues “are incapable of thinking the means of production different from , separate from, the social antagonistic mask which today they take on.” As a result, dead labour, like any natural force, provides a free service to capital: and when it is invested and put into motion by living labour, it accumulates and reproduces itself as capital. It is more difficult to reach an understanding of the method through which living labour is completely caught and engulfed within this process, as a necessary part of its development. “It is a natural quality of living labour to conserve the old value in the same time it is producing the new value.” Labour “conserves and perpetuates, always under new forms, a capital value that is always growing.”;  even more, the more that efficiency grows, the volume, the value of its means of production, the more there advances accumulation which inevitably accompanies the development of its productive force. “This natural force of labour presents itself as the auto-conservation of capital in which it is incorporated, precisely in the same way that the social labour forces of production present themselves as quality of capital and as the constant appropriation of surplus-value by the capitalist appears as the constant self-valorization of capital. All the forces of labour are projected as the forces of capital….”

The capitalist mode of production presents to itself surplus-value and the value of labour-power as “aliquot parts of the production of value”: it is this which hides the specific character of the capitalist relation, “or in other words, the exchange of variable capital for living labour-power and the corresponding exclusion of the worker form the product.” While all the developed forms of the process of capitalist production are forms of cooperation, the development of capitalist production itself re-proposes and generalizes the “false appearance of a relation of association in which the worker and the capitalist share the product according to the different proportions of the factors of its formation.” It is upon this base that, at the superficial level of bourgeois society, the retribution of the worker appears as the price of labour: necessary price or natural price, which expresses in monetary terms the value of labour. Marx correctly emphasizes that the value of labour is an imaginary expression, irrational definition, phenomenal form of the substantial relation which is the value of labour power. But what is the necessity of this appearance? Is it a subjective choice to hide the substance of the real relation, or is it not instead the real manner of making function the mechanism of the relation? Exemplary, in this respect, is the manner in which value and price of labour-power present themselves in the transfigured form of the salary. The real movement of the salary appears to demonstrate that it is not the value of labour-power that is being paid, but instead the value of its function, the value of labour itself. For capitalist production it is indispensable that labour-power presents itself as labour pure and simple and that the value of labour is paid under the form of the salary. Let’s think of the second particularity of the form of the equivalent; when concrete labour is turned into the phenomenal form of its opposite, of human abstract labour. It is not concrete labour that, in the relation of value, possesses the general quality of being abstract human labour. On the contrary, being human labour in the abstract is its proper nature, being concrete labour is only the phenomenal form of determinant form of the realization of that nature. This complete inversion is inevitable given that the labour represented in the product of labour is only creative of value to the degree in which it is abstract human labour, the using up dispensing of human labour power. Isn’t it true that “value transforms every product of labour into a social hieroglyph?”  The value of labour power expresses in the salary, simultaneously, the capitalist form of the exploitation of labour and its bourgeois mystification; it gives us the nature of the capitalist relation of production in an inverted manner.

Labour, is turned, on this basis, into the necessary mediation for labour-power to transform itself into salary: the condition for living labour presenting itself solely as variable capital, labour-power solely as part of capital. Value, in which is represented the price of a day’s labour, should appear then as the value or price of the labour day in general. In the salary there disappears precisely every trace of the division of the working day into necessary labour and surplus-value. All of labour emerges as paid labour; it is this which distinguishes wage labour from other historical forms of labour. The more that capitalist production develops and the system of its forces of production, the more the paid and non paid parts of labour are confused in an inseparable manner. The diverse forms of the payment of the wage are no more than different manners of expressing, at different levels, the constant nature of this process. We understand then “the decisive importance that the metamorphosis of value and price of labour-power under the form of the wage, or in other words, in the value and price of labour itself. Under this phenomenal form which turns the real relation invisible and destroys precisely its opposite, there is founded all the juridical ideas of the worker and the capitalist, all the mystifications of the capitalist mode of production, all the illusions of liberty…etc.” We can follow the history of the variety of forms of the wage through the whole development of capitalist production: the unity each time more complex which is established in its heart between labour process and valorization process, between labour and labour-power, between variable and constant part of capital, and hence, between labour-power and capital.

The salary is nothing more than wage labour considered from another point of view. The determinate character which labour has as an agent of production appears in the salary as the determination of distribution. The salary presupposes wage labour, as profit presupposes capital. “These determinate forms of distribution presuppose determinate social characteristics of the conditions of production and determinate social relations between agents of production.” The salary is provided, gives us as already superseded “the crude gross separation between production and distribution.” The determinate manner in which we take part in production determines the particular forms of distribution. The “relations and modes of distribution appear as a result solely as the inverse of the agents of production.”

Establishing what is the relation that exists between distribution and production is “evidently a question that falls within production itself.” Exchange is the mediating moment, on the one hand, between production and distribution, and on the other, between production and consumption: in the first case exchange is an act direct included in production; in the second case it is completely determined by it, if it is correct that exchange for consumption presupposes the division of labour, that private exchange presupposes private production, that a determinate intensity and expansion of exchange presupposes a determinate expansion and organization of production. It is on this basis that in general it was attempted to express an immediate identity between production and consumption: to the degree that one has a consumptive production and a productive consumption. Or we find a reciprocal dependence between them: production as means for consumption and consumption as the end of production. One can be presented as the realization of the other and vice versa: consumption consumes the product, production produces consumption. But Marx himself had already mocked those literate socialists and the prosaic economists that played with this Hegelian identity of opposites. We only need to add to the list those vulgar sociologists, also prosaic and literate, but not socialists and economists. “The most important thing to emphasize is that production and consumption….appear in whatever case as moments of a process in which production is the effective point of departure and because of that the moment which includes and overcomes the others and…the act in which the whole process renews itself.” Production, distribution, exchange and consumption are not identical; they represent moments of a totality, differences within a unity.” This unity is composed of an “organic aggregate” and it is clear that, in the interior of this organic aggregate the diverse moments established between them a reciprocal action. Production as well, in its unilateral form, is determined by the other moments. But “production supersedes not only itself, in the antithetic determination of production, as well as the other moments.” It is from production that the process begins anew.  “A production determines as a result a consumption, a distribution, an exchange of determinate relations, beyond the determinate relations between these diverse moments.” The necessity to appeal to these elementary concepts of Marx demonstrates in itself the objective existence of many too many “Marxists” inclined to repeat “the insipidness of the economists that treat production as an eternal truth, relegating the terrain of distribution to history.”

If we consider capital directly in the process of production, we cannot cease to continually distinguish the two fundamental moments: the production of absolute surplus value, where the relation of production appears in its most simple form and can be immediately captured, whether by the worker or the capitalist: the production of relative surplus value, specifically capitalist production, where we have at the same time the development of the social productive forces and their transfer directly from labour to capital. It is solely at this point- when all the social productive forces of labour emerge as autonomous internal forces of capital- that we can explain in all its wealth the whole process of circulation. At this level, the realization of surplus value not only hides the specific conditions of its production as it appears as its effective creation. This appearance too is also functional to the system.

Alongside labour time, there enters into action circulation time. The production of surplus-value receives new determinations in the process of circulation: “capital runs the cycle of its transformations; supersedes, its organic internal life entering into external relations of life, relations in which it opposes, not capital and labour, but capital and capital, on the one hand, and individuals as buyers and sellers, on the other.” At this point, all the parts of capital emerge equally as fountains of exceeding value and, because of this, all at the origins of profit. The extortion of surplus labour loses its specific character: its specific relation with surplus value is obscured: it is for this reason that the metamorphosis of the value of labour-power in the form of the salary serves. The transformation of surplus value and profit is effectively determined as much by the process of production as the process of circulation. But the mode of this transformation is nothing more than the ultimate development of the inversion of relations which we had verified in the interior of the process of production: when all the subjective productive forces of labour are presented as the objective productive forces of capital. “On the one hand, value, dead labour, which dominates living labour, is personified in the capitalist; on the other , instead, the worker appears as labour-power purely objective, as commodity.” “The effective process of production, as unity of process of direct production and process of circulation, engenders new forms, in which we continually loose ever more the internal connecting thread, the relations of production are autonomized in relation to the other and the constitute parts of value consolidated in autonomous forms separate from one another.”

Already in the analysis of the simplest categories of the capitalist mode of production, commodities and money, we can completely understand the process of mystification which transforms social relations into the property of things and the relation of production itself into a thing. In capital, and with the development of its successive determinations, “this inverted and cursed world” develops and imposes itself ever more. At the base of the capitalist mode of production, the existence of the product as a commodity and the commodity as the product of capital implies the “objectification of the social determinations of production and the subjectification of the material fundamentals of production itself.” It is not by mistake that the specific capitalist mode of production implants its roots, first, in relative surplus value and, following, in the metamorphosis of surplus value into profit:  particular form of the development of the social productive forces of labour, which appear as the autonomous forces of capital opposed to the worker, precisely because they are, in fact, a form of the domination of capital over the worker.   “Production for value and surplus value implies….the always active tendency to reduce the necessary time for production of a commodity, or in other words, its value, under the social medium in each moment. The desire to reduce the cost price to the minimum turns into the strongest pressure for the increase in the social productive force of labour which, appears nonetheless solely as a continuous increase of capital.” All we need to do is focus on the fanaticism of the capitalist in the economizing of the means of production; economizing in the employment of constant capital and at same time in labour.

“Capital tends not only to reduce to the indispensable direct living labour, and to reduce continually, through the exploitation of the social forces of production of labour, necessary labour for the finishing of the product, that is, to economize to the maximum living labour direct employed; it also has to, beyond this, the tendency to employ in the most economical conditions this labour reduced to the limits of the indispensable, that is, to reduce in to the minimum the applied constant capital.” An increase in the rate of profit, beyond giving a more modern exploitation of the productivity of social labour in production of constant capital, derives “from the economizing of employing constant capital itself.” This economizing is possible, only with its base, the highest concentration of the means of production, the only base that could give a location for their mass utilization.  As a result, “ it is only possible for the collective aggregate worker and , a lot of the times, it can only be realized in organized works at a large scale, that is, attaining a combination of workers  even more greater at the direct process of production. “ Like this, the means of production are consumed in the productive process, with the sole criteria, on the part of the collective worker, and not under a fractioned form on the part of a mass of workers without a reciprocal connection.  Then, “the economizing in the conditions of production which characterized large scale production derives essentially from the fact that such conditions operate as factors of social labour, of labour socially coordinated, that is as social factors of labour…It has its origins, then, in the social character of labour, in the same way that surplus value comes from surplus labour of each singular worker considered in an isolated manner.” Nonetheless, the economizing of constant capital, of employment in the conditions of production, as specific instrument to increase the rate of profit, emerges to the capitalist as an aspect completely estranged to the worker, “it emerges in a manner even more clear than the others inherent in labour, as a force inherent to capital” property of the capitalist mode of production and, hence, function of the capitalist. “Such a representation is even less surprising to the degree to which it corresponds the appearance of facts and to the degree in which the capitalist relation hides, effectively , the intimate structure of the phenomenon, for the total indifference, exteriority and strangeness in which it places the worker in relation to the conditions of realization of his labour”, to the point of turning “reciprocally strange and indifferent, on the one hand, the worker, representative of living labour, on the other,  the economically employment, that is, rational, of the conditions of labour.”

Like this, through the immediate social nature of labour, there is extended and deepened the domination, ever more exclusive of capital over the conditions of labour and through this domination, with employment ever more rational of all the conditions of production, there develops and specifies the capitalist exploitation of labour-power. The means of production are no longer simply, from this moment, objective property of capital, but subjective function of capital. The worker which finds himself with them in the process of production recognizes them only, as a result, as use values of production, instruments and material of labour. The worker returns to see the whole process of production from the point of view of view of process of simply labour. The unity of the process of labour and the process of valorization remains only in the hands of the capitalist; from now on, the worker can only understand the whole of the process through the mediation of capital; labour-power not only exploited by the capitalist, but integrated within it.

The development of capitalism brings within it the development of capitalist exploitation. The latter, brings within it the development of the class struggle; the legislation on the factories to the rupture of the State. The struggle for the regulation of the working day sees the capitalist and the worker, one in front of the other, still as buyer and seller. The capitalist defends his right to buy surplus labour, the worker the right to sell less of it. “Right versus right….between equal rights, force decides.” On the one hand, the power of the collective capitalist, on the other, of the collective worker.  It is through the mediation of legislation, with the intervention of the law, through the use of right, that is to say, it is on the political terrain that, for the first time, the contract of buying and selling between singular capitalist and isolated worker is transformed into a relation of force/power between the class of capitalists and the working class. It appears that this is the ideal terrain in which to develop the general struggle of the class: this was how it was, in fact, historically, its birth.  In order to evaluate the possible generalization of this moment, we have to understand the specific traces which characterize it, that is, the determinant manner in which it functioned within a certain type of the development of capitalism.  It is not by coincidence that Marx introduces the chapter on the struggle for the working day when he is discussing the passage from absolute surplus value to relative surplus value, from capital that captures the process of labour as it finds it to capital that puts, upside down, this very same process of labour, until it molds it to its image and similarities. The struggle for the regular working day historically places itself in the middle of this process.  Given the natural impulse of capital in the sense of prolonging the working day, it is correct that the workers got together through a living force, as a class, a law of the State, a social barrier, which impeded them from accepting slavery, “through the means of a voluntary contract with capital.” The struggle of the working class constrained the capitalist into changing the form of its domination. Which means that the pressure of labour-power is capable of constraining capital in modifying its very own internal composition and that it intervenes inside of capital as essential component of capitalist development, that is it pushes forward, from within, capitalist production, until it makes it trespass completely all its external relations of social life. That which appears in the most advanced state of development as a spontaneous function of the worker, disintegrated relatively to the conditions of labour and integrated relative to capital, emerges in the most backward state with the legal necessity of a social barrier which impedes the destruction of labour-power, founding, or providing the basis at the same time for a specifically capitalist form of exploitation. Political mediation assumes in each one of these moments a specific place. It is not written that the bourgeois political terrain lives eternally in the sky of capitalist society.

The transformations in the material mode of production and the corresponding mutations  in the social relations between producers “creates firstly monstrous excesses, provoking after, as antithesis to the excesses, social control which determines by law the regular working day and makes it uniform.” All “those minuscule dispositions, which regulate with such military uniformity to the sound of bells, periods, limits and pauses of work were not in fact products of parliamentary subtleties; they developed little by little according to the situation as natural laws of the modern mode of production.” The English parliament was able to understand through experience that, “a coercive law can perfectly eliminate, with its orders, all the so called natural obstacles of production which opposed to the limitation and regulation of the working day.” The law over the factories introduced in one branch of industry, fixed/put a limit  to the factory boss so that it could remove all technical obstacles. “The law on the factories like this, forces the maturation of the material elements for the transformation of the system of manufacture into a factory system; contemporarily, it accelerates, through the necessity of a greater dispensing of capital, the ruin of small artisans and the concentration of capital.” In this sense, “the legislation on the factories, first conscious and planned reaction of society in the spontaneous figure assumed by its process of social production, is a necessary product of large scale production, large scale industry.” With the violent intervention of the State, the collective capitalist first attempts to convince and then reaching the point of constraining the individual capital to conform to the general necessities of capitalist social production.  The exploitation of labour power can occur even if there is an economizing of labour; as the continuous increase on the part of constant capital goes hand in hand with the growing economization in the employment of constant capital itself. It is only on this basis that it is possible, at a certain point, a process of generalization of capitalist production and its development at a higher level. The clashing of the classes on the political terrain, the political mediation of the class struggle, was in this case, simultaneously, the result of a certain level of development and the condition for that development in conquering its own autonomous mechanism, a mechanism from which that point forward went very far, to the point of recuperating political mediation itself, the political terrain of the class struggle itself.         “If the generalization of the legislation on the factories was inevitable, as means of physical and intellectual defence of the working class, on the other hand, it generalizes and accelerates the transformation of dispersed labour process, realized at a minimal scale, into combined processes on a large social scale, and with this, the concentration of capital and the exclusive domination of the factory regime. It destroys all the antiquated forms and transitory forms of capital, substituting them with its direct domination, without a mask. In this way, it also turns general the direct struggle against this domination.”

Before anything else, it is necessary to consider this  as the point of arrival of a long historical process  that parts from the production of absolute relative surplus value and reaches, by necessity, to the production of relative surplus value; from the forced prolonging of the working day to the increase, which appears spontaneously, of the productive force of labour ; to the pure and simple extending of the process of production in its entirety to its internal transformation, which leads it to continually revolutionize the process of labour, in an ever more organic function and dependence of the valorization process. The relation, which before could be easily established, between the sphere of production and the other social spheres is now transformed into a relation that is much more complex between the internal transformations of the sphere of production and the internal transformations of the other spheres. It is transformed, beyond this, into a relation that is much more mediated, organic and mystified, more evident and hidden at the same time, between capitalist production and bourgeois society. The more that the determinant relation of capitalist production grasps the social relation in general, the more it appears to disappear within the latter as a marginal aspect. The more that capitalist production penetrates in profundity and invades, in extension, the totality of social relations, the more society appears as a totality relative to production and production as a particularity relative to society. When the particular generalizes itself, is universalized, it appears represented as general, as universal. In the social relation of capitalist production, the generalization of production expresses itself as the hypostatization of society. When specifically capitalist production has already weaved the whole web of social relations, it itself emerges as a generic social relation.  The phenomenal forms reproduce themselves with immediate spontaneity, as current forms of thought: “the substantial relation should be discovered by science.” If we limit ourselves to a purely ideological approach of this reality, we do nothing more than reproduce this reality as it presents itself, inverted in its appearance. If we want to understand the intimate material link of the real relations a theoretical effort is needed of scientific penetration which, before anything else, strips the object—bourgeois society—of all its mystified phenomenal forms, that have been ideologized, in order to isolate and attain its hidden substance which is and continues to be the relation of capitalist production.

In that formidable work that is The Development of Capitalism in Russia, Lenin in speaking about large scale mechanized industry, establishes firstly that the scientific concept of the factory does not correspond to the common sense understanding of it. “In our official statistics, and in general in our literature, by factory it is understood to be an industrial establishment greater or smaller which employs a greater or smaller number of salaried workers. Following Marx, by large scale machine industry (factory) is understood solely as a certain level, precisely the most advanced level, of capitalism in industry.” Lenin sends us to the 4th section in book 1 of Capital and especially to the passage from manufacture to large scale industry, where the scientific concept of the factory serves precisely to signal the “forms and phases through which the development of capitalism in industry passes in a given country.” At a certain state of its development, if capital wants to lower the value of labour-power it is inevitably forced to increase the productive force of labour; it is forced to transform as much necessary labour into surplus-labour and, like this, to put upside down all the technical and social conditions of the labour process, of revolutionizing from within the mode of production. “In capitalist production, the economy of labour via the development of the productive force of labour does not have as its objective the shortening of the working day.” It does have as its objective the shortening of the labour time necessary for the production of labour-power and, because of that, for the production of a determinant quantity of commodities.  Like this, the increase in the productive force of labour should, before anything else capture the branches of industry whose products determine the value of labour-power. “but the value of a commodity is only determined by the quantity of labour which gives it its ultimate form, but also, and in the same manner, by the mass of labour contained in the means of production…Hence, the increase in productive force and the corresponding cheapening of commodities  in the industries which provide the material elements of constant capital, also lower the value of labour-power.” If we understand this process, not from the singular capitalist point of view, but from the point of view of capitalist society in its totality, we will see that general rate of surplus-value increases to the same degree in which the value of labour-power decreases. “The labour of exceptional productive force operates as potential labour,” or in other words, it creates in the same periods of time superior values to those created by median social labour. For this reason, the capitalist that applies the perfected mode of production, appropriates, through the means of surplus-labour, of a greater part of the working day relative to that appropriated by other capitalists in the same industry. “He does, singularly, what capital does at a higher level in the production of relative surplus value.” The coercive law of competition operates, then, in the manner of introducing and generalizing the new mode of production; but competition itself, the external movements of capital, are nothing more than another mode through which the “immanent laws of capitalist production” are presented, of which a” scientific analysis of competition is only possible when we have understood the intimate nature of capital, in the same way that the apparent movements of the celestial bodies is only intelligible for those that know their real movement.” In fact, it is at this point that the general rate of surplus-value, for it to be positively untouched by this process, has the necessity of re-dimensioning/ reshaping  continually the value of labour-power, of revolutionizing the conditions of the process of labour, of generalizing and accelerating the mode of capitalist social production: point of departure which will, after, make of capitalism a formidable historical system of development of the social productive forces.

Capitalist development is organically linked to the production of relative surplus value. And relative surplus value is organically linked to all the internal vicissitudes of the process of capitalist production, that distinct and ever more complex unity between process of labour and process of valorization, between the transformations in the conditions of labour and the exploitation of labour-power, between the technical and social process together, on the one hand, and capitalist despotism, on the other.  The more that capitalist development advances, that is, the more the production of relative surplus value penetrates and extends, the more that the circle-circuit production-distribution-exchange-consumption is necessarily closed. That is, the relation between capitalist production and bourgeois society, between factory and society, between society and State achieves, to an ever greater degree a more organic relation. At the highest level of capitalist development, the social relation is transformed into a moment of the relation of production, the whole of society is turned into an articulation of production, that is, the whole of society lives as a function of the factory and the factory extends its exclusive domination to the whole of society. It is upon this basis that the machinery of the political State tends to ever more identify with the figure of the collective capitalist; it is turned ever more into the property of the capitalist mode of production and, as a result, function of the capitalist. The process of the unitary composition of capitalist society, imposed by the specific development of its production, no longer tolerates that there exist a political terrain, even if this is formally independent of the web of social relations.  In a certain sense, it is true that the political functions of the State begin today to be recuperated by society, with the slight difference that this is the society of classes of the capitalist mode of production. Consider this a sectarian reaction against those who see in the modern political State the neutral terrain of the struggle between capital and labour. Heed some prophetic words from Marx that have not been superseded in the political thought of Marxism: “It is not enough that the conditions of labour present themselves as capital on one side and as men who have nothing to sell but their labour-power on the other. It is also not enough to constrain these men to sell themselves voluntarily.  To the degree that capitalist development progresses, there develops a working class that, by education, tradition and habit recognizes as obvious natural laws the demands of that mode of production. The organization of the process of production overcomes all resistances…; the silent coercion of the economic relations places the seal of the capitalist over the worker. It is true that extra economic power, immediately, continues to be used, but only exceptionally. In the normal course of things the worker can remain confident that in the natural laws of production, that is, on his dependence in relation to capital, which is born from the very conditions of production and that these guarantee and perpetuate.”

One of the instruments which function within this process is precisely the mystified relation which is established, at a determinant level of development, between capitalist production and bourgeois society, between the relation of production and the social relation—consequence of the mutations that intervened in the heart of the social relation of production and premise for this relation to be once again conquered as a natural law. It is only apparently paradoxical that, the factory being a particularity, even though essential, of society, it can maintain its specific traits in face of the whole reality. When the factory seizes the whole of society—all of social production is turned into industrial production—the specific traits of the factory are lost within the generic traits  of society. When the whole of society is reduced to the factory, the factory—as such—appears to disappear. It is on this material basis that is repeated and concludes, at a real higher level, the maximum ideological development of bourgeois metamorphoses.   The highest level of the development of capitalist production signals the most profound mystification of all the bourgeois social relations. The real growing process of proletarianization presents itself as formal process of tertiarization. The reduction of all forms of labour to industrial labour, of all types of labour to the commodity labour-power, presents itself as the extinction of labour-power itself as commodity and, as a result, as the depreciation of its value as a product. The payment of whatever price of labour in terms of salary presents itself as the absolute negation of capitalist profit, as the absolute elimination of the surplus-labour of the worker.  Capital, which disorganizes and reorganizes the process of labour according to its growing necessities of the process of valorization, presents itself as already as a spontaneous objective potential of society which self-organizes and as such develops itself. The return of state political functions in the structure of civil society presents itself as the contradiction between State and Society; the functionality ever more straight/narrow of politics and economy, as possible autonomy of the political terrain relative to economic relations.  Resuming, the concentration of capital is, at the same time,  the exclusive domination of the factory regime, both historic results of modern capitalism, are inverted, the first, in the dissolution of capital, as determinant social relation, the second, in the exclusion of the factory from the specific relation of production. That is why capital appears as the objective wealth of society in general and the factory as the particular mode of the production of “social” capital. This is what emerges to the crude bourgeois eyes of the vulgar sociologist. When the scientist himself is reduced to a salaried worker, wage labour is beyond the limits of scientific knowledge, or more correctly, it is transformed into the terrain of the exclusive application of that false bourgeois science of technology. It is useless to add that all of this is still to occur and we will only occupy ourselves when it does occur. “Whoever wants to represent whatever living phenomenon in its development should, inevitable and necessary confront the dilemma: advance the facts or stay behind.”

This is a principle of method to be used permanently going forward. Even when it forces us to choose that savage/ferocious unilaterality which strikes so much fear in the moderate soul of so many “professional revolutionaries.”  Even more when this  is present, not, of course, as a subjective illusion, arbitrary act of the mind,  but as a real process of objective development, which is not about following it but anticipating it.  No one tries to forget by force the existence of the world exterior to production.  Putting the accent on one of the parts signifies recognizing and demanding the essentiality of this part relative to the others. Even more when this particular aspect, by its very nature, generalizes itself.  The scientific unilaterality of the workers point of view is not to be confused with a mystical reduction ad unum. It is, instead, looking at distribution, exchange and consumption from the point of view of production. And, from within production, looking at the process of labour from the point of view of the process of valorization and the process of valorization from the point of view of the labour  process. In other words, to understand the organic unity of the process of production, which founds, provides the basis for, the unity of the process of production, distribution, exchange and consumption. The global dynamic of this process can be understood whether with the partiality of the collective capitalist, or the socially combined worker; only that the first presents it with all the functional despotism of its conservative appearances and the second reveals it with all its liberatory force of its revolutionary development.

The social relation of capitalist production sees society as a means and production as an end: capitalism is production for production. The same sociality of production is nothing more than the medium for private appropriation. In this sense, at the base of capitalism, the social relation is never separated from the relation of production; the relation of production is identified ever more with the social relation of the factory; the social relation of the factory acquires each time a greater and direct political content. It is capitalist development itself which tends to subordinate the whole political relation to the social relation, the whole social relation to the relation of production, the whole relation of production to the relation of the factory, because only this permits it to start after, from within the factory, the inverse path: the struggle of the capitalist to destroy and reconstruct in its image the antagonistic figure of the collective worker.  Capital attacks labour on its very own terrain; it is only from within labour that capital can disintegrate the collective worker to integrate, following, the isolated worker. We no longer have simply the means of production on the one hand, and the worker on the other, but all the conditions of labour, on the one hand and the worker, which labours, on the other; labour and labour-power opposed one to the other and both united within capital. Attained this point, the ideal of the most modern capitalism is to recuperate the primitive relation of simple buying and selling contracted between the individual capitalist and the isolated worker: having, hence, one of them in their hand the social power of monopoly and the other the individual subordination through the paying of the position of labour. The silent constraint of the economic relations puts by itself the seal of capitalist domination over the worker. The current legislation over the factories consists in the rationalization of capitalist production.  The constitution within the factory sanctions “the exclusive domination of the factory regime” over the whole of society.

Its true: this will in turn render “equally general the direct struggle against this domination.” In fact, attained this point, not only is it possible as it is historically necessary to plant the general struggle against the social system within the social relation of production, to put into crises bourgeois society in the heart of capitalist production. For the working class, it is essential to once again travel, with all its class consciousness, the path dictated by capitalist development, viewing the State from the point of view of society, society from the point of view of the factory and the factory from the point of view of the worker.  With the goal of continually recomposing the material figure of the collective worker against capital which seeks to dismantle it; more, with the objective to begin to dismember the intimate nature of capital in the potentially antagonistic parts which organically compose it.  To the capitalist that attempts to oppose labour and labour-power from within/inside the collective worker, we respond counterposing labour-power and capital in the interior of capital itself. At this point, capital attempts to dismember the collective worker and the worker tries to dismember capital; this is no longer right contra right, decided by force, but, instead, directly, force against force.  This is the ultimate state of the class struggle at the highest level of capitalist development.

The error of the old maximalism consisted in conceiving this opposition, from the exterior; it saw the working class completely outside of capital and, like this, as its general antagonist. From here the incapacity of any scientific knowledge and the sterility of all practical struggle. It is worth more today to say that, from the point of view of the worker, we should look, not directly at the condition of the workers, but directly to the situation of capital. The worker should also recognize to capital, in its analysis, a privileged post, precisely the privilege which capital objectively possess within the system. Not only: the working class should materially discover itself as a part of capital if it wants to oppose the whole of capital to itself.  It should recognize itself as a particular of capital if it wants to present itself as its general antagonist.  The collective worker is opposed not only to the machine, as constant capital, but to labour-power itself, as variable capital.  It has to reach the point of having as its enemy the whole of capital therefore itself as a part of capital.  Labour should see labour-power as its enemy, as a commodity.  It is on this base that the capitalist necessity of objectifying in capital all the subjective potency of labour can be transformed, on the workers part, into the maximum recognition/understanding of capitalist exploitation. The attempt at the integration of the working class within the system is what may provoke the decisive rupture of the system, bringing the class struggle to its highest level. There exists a moment in development in which capitalism finds itself in this state of necessity; if that moment passes, capital has won for a long period; if the organized working class can break it for the first time on this terrain, then the model of workers revolution under modern capitalism is born.

We saw the commodity labour-power as the properly active side of capital, as the natural source of the whole capitalist dynamic. Protagonist, not only of the expanded reproduction of the process of valorization, but of the continual revolutionary transformations of the process of labour. The technological transformations themselves are dictated and imposed by the modifications effected in the value of labour-power. Cooperation, manufacture and large scale industry are nothing more than “particular methods of the production of relative surplus value”, different forms of the economy of labour that, on its parts, provoke growing mutations in the organic composition of capital. Capital depends more on labour-power each time; it should then, as a result, possess it in a more complete manner each time, as it possess the natural forces of production; it should reduce the working class itself to a natural force of society. The more that capitalist development advances, the more that the collective capitalist has the necessity of seeing all labour within capital: the more necessity it has in controlling all of the movements, interior and exterior, of labour-power; the more it is forced to programme, in the long term, the relation capital-labour, as the index of the stability of the social system.  When capital conquered all the exterior territories to capitalist production properly termed, it begins its process of internal colonization; on the other hand, when the circuit of bourgeois society is definitively closed—production, distribution, exchange and consumption—we can say that there  begins the true and proper process of capitalist development.  At this point, the process of objective capitalization of subjective forces of labour is and should be accompanied by the process of the material dissolution of the collective worker and, therefore, of the worker himself, as such; reducing the worker to the property of the mode of production and, as a following, function of the capitalist. It is clear that, on this basis, the integration of the working class within the system is transformed into a vital necessity of capitalism: the workers refusal of this integration impedes the system from functioning, making possible one only other alternative: the dynamic stabilization of the system or the workers revolution.

Marx says that “of all the instruments of production, the greatest productive force is the revolutionary class itself.” The process of capitalist production is already in itself revolutionary: it maintains in continuous movement and operates an incessant transformation of all the productive forces, including the conscious and living productive force which is the working class. The development of the productive forces is the “historical mission” of capitalism. It is true that it founds at the same time its maximum contradiction: that is why the incessant development of the productive forces cannot cease to provoke the incessant development of the greatest productive force, the working class as revolutionary class. It is this that should compel (impulse) the collective worker to value, consciously, the objectively revolutionary content of capitalist development: to the point of forcing it to anticipate development, if it does not want to remain behind. Because of this, as a result of this, the workers revolution should not be realized after, when capitalism has already destroyed itself in catastrophic general crises, nor can it come before, when capitalism has not even reached its specific cycle of development. It can and should be realized contemporaneously to that development; it should present itself as internal component of that development and at the same time, as its internal contradiction, in the same way as labour-power, that only from within/the interior of capital can put into crises the whole of capitalist society.  Only the revolutionary development of the working class can turn efficient and evident, at the same time, the fundamental contradiction between the productive forces and the social relations of production: without that development, the contradiction is nothing more, effectively, than a potential fact, but not real, a pure and simple possibility, as with the possibility of crises at the level of C—M—C.  The level of the productive forces is not measured by the level of technological progress but by the degree of revolutionary consciousness (awareness) of the working class. More correctly, the first is the capitalist measure, which conceives the worker solely as a human appendage of its machines; the second is the measure of the organized workers movement, which organizes, precisely on this basis, the process of rupture of the social relation that cages the revolutionary experience of the working class. In this sense, the contradiction between the productive forces and the social relations of production is nothing more than the exterior expression of another contradiction that lives completely from within/in the interior of the social relation of production: the contradiction between the socialization of the process of production and the private appropriation of the product, between individual  capitalist which attempts to decompose that socialization and the collective worker which recomposes it front of it, between the bosses attempt at economic integration and the political response of the workers antagonism. It is not by coincidence that we speak of these things. This process is currently in development in Italy, for everyone to see.  On this terrain will be decided for a long period of time the alternative between capitalism and socialism. The political party of Italian capitalism appears to have understood this; the parties of the workers movement have not.

It is not a question of eliminating by force all the other contradictions, which subsist and are, therefore, more evident for all, appearing, as a result, more essential to the comprehension of the whole.  Instead, it is about acquiring and knowing this elementary principle that, at a determinant level of capitalist development, all the contradictions between the various parts of capital should be expressed in the fundamental contradiction between working class and the whole of capitalism; only at this time is the socialist revolutionary process opened.  To express all the contradictions of capitalism through the working class means to say immediately, for itself, that these contradictions are unsolvable within capitalism itself, sending us therefore beyond the system which engenders them. This is because the working class within capitalism is the only unsolvable contradiction of capitalism, or more correctly, it turns into such from the moment in which it self-organizes as a revolutionary class. No to the organization of the oppressed class, to the defense of the interests of the labourers; nor to the form of class organization for government, manager of capitalists interests, but instead, yes, to the organization as antagonistic class: self-political government of the working class in the capitalist economic system.  If the formula of the “dualism of powers” has any sense, it should be this one.  That consciousness should be brought to the worker from the exterior and that such a task belongs to the party no longer constitutes the problem for today. The solution already exists and is directly dictated by the development of capitalism, by capitalist production which has touched the limits of bourgeois society, by the factory which imposed henceforth its exclusive domination on the whole of society. Political consciousness should be brought by the party, but from within, the interior of the process of production. There is no one that thinks today that we can launch a revolutionary process without political organization of the working class, without a workers party. Many still think, however, that the party can direct the revolution remaining closed/cut off from the factory, that political action only begins where the relation of production ends and that the general struggle against the system is that which develops in the vertices of the bourgeois State, of which has itself turned, in the meantime, into the particular expression of the social necessities of capitalist production.  Take note: this is not about renouncing the Leninist rupture of the machinery of State, as inevitably happens with all those who walk about through the democratic path.  It is about anchoring the rupture of the State in society, the dissolution of society in the process of production, the destruction of the relation of production within the social relation of the factory. The bourgeois State machinery today has to be destroyed in the capitalist factory.

Whether we start from Capital, or from the actual level of capitalist development, the analysis reaches the same conclusions. We cannot still say, at this time, that these conclusions are proved: it is necessary to return, from the beginning, run along another path; to experiment once again the significance of the Marxist theory of capitalist development, which turns ever more into the historical knot of all the problems, to liberate it from all the ideological incrustations which put to sleep a part of the workers movement in the opportunist wait of the catastrophic fall, contributing to integrate the other part in the autonomous mechanism of an undefined stabilization of the system. This is what will be done following this discourse.

It is sufficient to remember the preliminary necessity of recuperating the most correct path, whether for theoretical analysis, or practical struggle.  Factory-society-State—this is the point in which today, coincide scientific theory and subversive praxis, the analysis of capitalism and the workers revolution.  This is enough to verify the correctness of this path.  The “scientific conception” of the factory is that which today opens the path to the most complete comprehension/understanding of the present and, simultaneously, to its complete destruction. Precisely because of this the factory is situated at the point of departure of the new construction, of which it must start from if it wants to construct and grow the workers State completely within the new relation of production of socialist society.

Translated by Guio Jacinto

Mario Tronti: “We have populism because there is no people”

A piece written by Mario Tronti for a recent issue of Democrazia e Diritto (2010, 3–4), dedicated to the question of populism


‘Quite a number of the terms that we use all the time, and which we thus believe that we understand in all their significance, are, in reality, only fully clear to a privileged few. As in the case of the terms “circle” or “square”, which everyone uses, though only mathematicians have a clear and precise idea of what they really mean; so, too, the word “people” is on everyone’s lips, without them ever getting a clear idea in mind of its real meaning’. So said the mathematician and philosopher Frédéric de Castillon, victorious participant in the 1778 contest held by the Royal Prussian Academy on the question, close to the heart of Frederick the Great, ‘is it useful for the people to be tricked?’ ‘Normally, by “the people” we mean’ – Castillon continued – ‘the majority of the population, almost constantly occupied by mechanical, rough and wearisome tasks, and excluded from government and roles in public life’. Here, we are dealing with the eve of the French Revolution – but in Germany, where nation and people had not yet met, as they already had some time before in England, France and Spain, by way of their absolute monarchies. Thus we are also talking about here, in Italy. Frédéric de Castillon arrived in Berlin having come from Tuscany. Nation and people grew together in the modern age. And what brings them together is the modern state. There is no nation, without the state. But there is no people, without the state. This is important, first in order to understand the question, and moreover in order to grasp it within the time that concerns us, and in which we are engaged. Because the theme is an eternal one, Biblical more than it is historical.

The ancient/Old Testament concept of the people – the people founded by Moses – seems to me to be closer to the modern concept of the people than are the Greeks’ demos or the Romans’ populus. Neither the city-state nor the Empire founded a people. No promised land, no exile, no exodus, no God of the armies. The free citizens in the agora or the plebs on the terraces of the Colosseum did not make up a people. These images and metaphors are current/not-current for our own time. The people is a secularised theological concept. It has nothing to do with the assembly of sovereign electors or the many headed beast. Esposito and Galli, in theEnciclopedia del pensiero politico [‘Encyclopedia of Political Thought’] say that the process of secularisation began with Marsilius (universitas civium seu populus) and with Bartolo (populus unius civitatis). But it was Machiavelli who later spoke of a popular government distinct from, and counterposed to, the principality and the aristocratic republic. And for Hobbes, in the state of the Leviathan, ‘the subjects are the multitude and the King is the people’.

Kings or the People, the impressive tableau written by Reinhard Bendix, tells us the history of the passage from the medieval authority of kings to the modern mandate of the people. The mandate to rule: how many times has modern capitalism made but not kept this promise, which has always ultimately been subjected to only its own aims – of development, change and, by way of wars and crises, rebirth? The history of the twentieth century, in its various different passages and returns from totalitarianisms to democracies, is proof enough of this. And as I write, something of the kind is happening afresh, on the shores of the Mediterranean, as sultanates fall at the hands of the people in the city squares. But what will become of these forms of the people? What will they achieve? Who will they serve? Bendix exactingly recounts the history of the long wave that, having come from the England and France of the sixteenth century, only arrived in Germany, Japan and Russia in the nineteenth century, before then reaching the Chinese revolution and Arab socialism and nationalism in the twentieth century. It is an idea of the people entirely bound up with nation building. It is a bourgeois, national-bourgeois idea, of the people. But, contrary to the belief in progress, which has done so much damage to the praxis of the workers’ movement, the political concept of the people did not burst forth with the French Revolution, nor with analogous, previous bourgeois revolutions in England and America, which were forms of national and social conflict. It would not be until 1848 that this new political subject took to the field. Delacroix, drunk on the romantic idea of theVolksgeist, managed to discern in the 1830 July Revolution the triumphant image of Liberty leading the people.

But it was the ‘fated June’ of 1848 that, from Paris to all Europe, saw the reality, unimaginable for the bourgeoisie, of the armed people on the barricades, fighting for their own revolution. Marx committed the brilliant error of prophetically discerning the emerging figure of the working-class political subject. It was, in reality, a matter of the old proletariat that had already, ever since the first industrial revolution, invaded parts of society, above all in urban areas. But here, we find a point of decisive significance for our analysis, orientation and judgement. It is the concept of class that makes the people a political category, as regards the politics that interests us: namely, the politics autonomous of the use of which politics has been made – and is made – by the forces of domination. The concept of class, and of class struggle, burst onto the scene of modern history, unhinging the entire theoretical apparatus for analysing the economy and society; an apparatus invented by the historians of the Restoration era. Reactionaries always have a very acute eye – to the benefit of their own, partial interests – for reading reality. With class, the people becomes a political subject. Without class, there is no people, politically speaking. There is, socially, or there is, nationally – two forms of the neutralisation and depoliticisation of the concept of the people.

The Communist ‘people’ has been bitterly contested by theorists and practicians of the national-popular. Rightly so, from their, respect-worthy, point of view, of continuity from Gramsci through Togliatti onwards. But the Communist ‘people’ had a meaning in a party, and for the Party, which described itself as being of the working class. When this characterisation is abandoned – as it was already some years before the dissolution of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), effectively in the period after the death of Enrico Berlinguer – not only does the Communist people become extinct, but so, too, the political concept-reality of the people. We must be aware that when we today speak of ‘popular strata’ we are dealing with a sociological concept, a condition and a position of social presence – and not by chance, one that is impossible to grasp and impossible to represent politically. And, indeed, it can be grasped, it can be represented, precisely by way of anti-political positions. It is within this bind that we can locate populism. What are we to learn from the fact that populism and Narodism said the same thing, at more or less at the same time – the last decades of the nineteenth century (albeit in very different forms) – and expressed at least the same tendency? What, other than Tocqueville’s prediction that America and Russia would be the great historical protagonists of the twentieth century? It was from the critique of populism that the mature era of American democracy was born. And it was from the critique of populism that the theory and practice of the revolution in Russia was born. This last point in particular concerns us, here. It was on this terrain, fighting against the ‘Friends of the People’, that the young Social Democrat Lenin grasped his adept analysis of the development of capitalism in a backward country. This was the right method. Populism has always indicated a problem – a real problem. So, too, today, we need to take this pointer and rise to the need for an analysis of the actually-existing conditions – social and political, economic and institutional – within which we live.

It is necessary to return from the critique of the solutions offered by populism, to the elaboration of alternative solutions. Populism is the form, or one of the forms, in which the unsolved problem of political modernity, namely the relationship between governing and governed, is sometimes posed. In this sense, the phenomenon has spread to less advanced societies with a mainly agrarian economy and peasant masses, as may have been the case – albeit no longer – in some of the countries of Latin America. The phenomenon has come in unprecedented forms to so-called postindustrial economies and so-called post-democratic political systems. It is here that we need deeper insight – and this issue of Democrazia e diritto tries to do so.

When we of the Centro per la Riforma dello Stato discussed with Laclau his book On Populist Reason, we appreciated his effort to make a critique of populism while trying to salvage the idea of the people. This is the right course to follow, as the anomolous case of Italy – both the past and present ones – demonstrates. The past case saw great political forces solidly based on popular components of the history of society, from Catholic popolarismo [the ideological basis of the People’s Party and Christian Democrats] to the socialist tradition and communist diversity. Since there was the people, there was no populism. On the contrary, in today’s Italy there is populism because there is no people. On this very point it is again useful – indeed, indispensible – to return to the political concept of the people. Because that is what it concerns. How and when was this – which we have called a concept-reality – dissolved? It happened at the same time as, and within the context of, the dissolution of the idea and practice of class. And not because the social condition of class went away, but because the political reference to it has been abandoned. This void has been filled with the current populist impulse, which is no longer a matter of defensively invoking old communitarian traditions, but rather, on the contrary, an aggressive adaptation to the decomposition of all social binds.

Lenin appreciated the first Russian populism, as against the second – just as we must appreciate the populism of the People’s Party, as against the populism of the Tea Party today. Perhaps it is worth us rereading Christopher Lasch, as Claudio Giunta aptly recommends in the ‘focus on populism’ in issue 2010/4 of Italianieuropei. It is worth reading – with a critical eye, of course – what Lasch himself writes in his brief text published in that issue: ‘The left has for some time lost all interest in the lower classes. It is allergic to everything that resembles a lost cause’. A lost cause is to concern oneself still, as people once did, with the everyday problems of the people living on the periphery of the city, who have the terrible habit of never going along to the Auditorium of the Parco della Musica.

It is difficult to say what the people is, today. The people of turbocapitalism: its social composition, territorial roots, inherited traditions, language, dialect, culture, between megalopoles, medium and small towns, villages and fractions of villages, female difference, here, in this point, at the bottom of the social ladder. Areas of analysis for a future Left. It isn’t by browsing the Web that we can touch upon the deepest levels of a distressed human existence. It is not with biopolitics that we can tap into the needs of ordinary people, women and men of flesh and bones, as they say. Recite the mantra: nothing is like it was before, nothing can still be said as it was before. But I do not see any other definition of the people apart from that meaning the lower classes, apart from the eighteenth-century idea of a ‘population almost constantly occupied by mechanical, rough and wearisome tasks, and excluded from government and roles in public life’. Are they still in the majority? It depends from what point of view we look at the world: from the West or the East, the North or the South. Here back home, in our little garden, enchanted as it is tattered, the contradiction is an ever-growing one. Whether in time of crisis or with growth, in recent decades the gap between rich and poor has continued to increase. Those who work, are working more and earning less. Those who do not, unable to find work, are sliding down the social scale, with the emergence, for the first time, of this unprecedented type of intellectual sub-proletariat. And also at work is a sort of postmodern proletarianisation of the middle strata. Sociologically speaking, what might be called the people is being reproduced in an extended form. But this quantitative measure is not the decisive consideration. Even if the lower classes were destined to become a numerical minority, it is necessary to take their side.

There is only one way effectively to combat today’s populism, so as to defeat its logic – and it is to give political expression to this very thing, the people. Gino Germani gave a very insightful reading of populism as the passage from tradition to modernity, with pieces of both tradition and modernity coexisting and clashing. He was looking, above all, at Latin American populism. But the same also goes for the original populism, in Russia and the United States. Today’s populism describes the passage from the modern to what is called the postmodern. No one knows what this postmodern, a no man’s land, really is, but, from what we can see already, it is a soulless world – it is just bodies, virtual, fleshless bodies, appendages of the machines, which are the only creatures with any intelligence remaining. The drift towards populism, a senile disorder of advanced societies, essentially expresses all this, in its dark heart. The political-institutional form – it would be more accurate to say antipolitical-institutional form – is the new Leviathan of populist democracy. A far from tame monster, armed with the subtle violence of plebiscitary consent, the animalised macroanthropos, dressed in the shiny robes of participation, which hide the naked reality of the cessation of sovereignty by the new plebs to the last leader – not even a charismatic one. In today’s populism, there is no people and no prince. And if what we learnt from childhood – ‘to know well the nature of peoples one needs to be a prince, and to know well the nature of princes one needs to be of the people’ – is to bear fruit once again, first there must reemerge the poles of conflict, in their new clothes. For this to happen, it is necessary to defeat populism, in the form of populist democracy: because it obscures the relations of power. It is the ideological apparatus adequate to our time, masking, and at once guaranteeing, the functioning of reality. We can find everything within this – the dictatorship of communication, the old and ever-renewed society of the spectacle, the leisure civilisation, the last rhetoric of the masses, the rhetoric of the Net, and interactivity as a site of the subaltern. The consequence: everyone talks about politics in an extravagant manner, not looking from the low points up to the mountains, or from the summits down to the plains, but turning about, rattling on about more or less, bodies and desires, of the commons and of governance, of rights or of conflict.

How is the people to be made, today: this is the question. How to make the people, now that the centrality of class is no more? Making the people comes up against the same difficulties as making a society. Is it possible again to bring together a collective subject of persons, in the wake of the disaggregation that the animal spirits of the bourgeoisie have produced among the – highly asocial – relations between individuals? Moreover: how can a prince be made, with the nation-state no longer being sovereign? What authority without a state, and yet still facing the reality of power? Who decides what is the normal state, seeing that the state of exception is now to be found outside the West? Laclau has made more than one reference to the studies of Margaret Canovan, whether the later ones where she reprises Michael Oakeshott’s distinction between a redemptive and a pragmatic politics, or the early ones (Populism, 1981) where its is precisely in urban populism – in distinction from the original, agrarian variant – that the question of the relation between élites and people is again posed. The theme of the meaning of politics, and the theme of the verticality of political relations, are closely interwoven. From one time to the next, across all time – and not necessarily for each epoch, and epochs are few in number! – the first theme remains the same, in a constant state of return, while the second changes form through the flow of history.

Holding firm to the politics of redemption and the politics of realism, you must understand what exists, in the here and now, at the bottom of society and at the summits of power. The twentieth century gave you the people as a class and the élite as a party – a powerful simplification, making for a great story. Understandable to everyone, it set the masses in motion. An irrepeatable model? Probably, yes. Because the system of subjects has been superated. But to superate – yes, a whole epoch! – dialectically, means to conserve the essence of its method, the movement of politics. People and élite does not lead to populism. Leader and élite leads to populism. The theory of élites made a pre-emptive critique of the authoritarian personality, and would have prevented it had this theory been put into practice by a large political force. And by reproposing the theory of élites, it would today be possible to make a – retrospective – critique of the democratic personality. It could be delegitimated through the practice of a strong political movement.

There is but one way to deconstruct the power of personalisation, and it is to reconstruct the power of the leading classes. This can only be done on the Left and with the Left. Only here is it possible to resuscitate – mentally – the authentic meaning of the political concept of the people: specifying and determining it with the social concept of labour. A people, not of the subjects of the crown, not of citizens, but of workers. The working people: a very new old phrase. Where work achieves not life, but rather existence, in the political centrality of the person who works. After the just and free partiality of the working class – precisely where justice and freedom had real meaning – it is necessary, and possible, perhaps for the first time, to establish a general class, in oder to rediscover this meaning. That is, the class of the working people. The working class, in its proud assertion of its own partiality, in the refusal of work, which was nothing other than a refusal to be a general class, was a revolutionary subject that went down to defeat. In order that this political defeat does not translate into the end of history, it is necessary to grasp the thread exactly where it snapped, tie it up again, start out anew and proceed onwards. The way out is the totus politicus. The working people as a general class is possible only today, in working conditions that are extended and parcellised, far-reaching and fragmented, territorialised and globalised – the Marxian meaning of labour, without qualifiers, from the exhaustion of the hands to the exhaustion of the concept, from the occupation you don’t love to the occupation you can’t find, an archipelago of islands that make up a continent. What is an élite? It is the political force that makes workers a people. A leading class that makes not itself, but labour, a governing subject. Thus we will find the name of the final goal. In the meantime, we have to talk about the means of getting there.

Translated from Italian by David Broder. Read the full article in Italian here.

Our Operaismo

Posted: September 14, 2012 in Mario Tronti

The italian operaismo of the 1960s starts with the birth of Quaderni rossi and stops with the death of Classe operaia. End of story. Thus goes the argument. Or alternatively—si le grain ne meurtoperaismo is reproduced in other ways, reincarnated, transformed, corrupted and . . . lost. This text originally sprang from the urge to clarify the intellectual distinction between operaismo—’workerism’ the inadequate but unavoidable English translation—and post-operaismo, or theautonomia movements of the late 70s and after. Then the sweet pleasures of remembrance did the rest. Whether this ‘rest’ is in good taste or of any use today will be for its readers to judge. This is my truth, based on what I believed back then and which I only see more clearly today. I don’t want to provide a canonical interpretation of that project; but this is one of the possible readings, one-sided enough to support the good old idea of partisan research, that indigestible theoretical practice of ‘point of view’ that formed us.

I say we, because I believe I can speak for a handful of people inseparably linked by a bond of political friendship, who shared a common knot of problems as ‘lived thought’. For us, the classic political friend/enemy distinction was not just a concept of the enemy, but a theory and a practice of the friend as well. We became and have remained friends because we discovered, politically, a common enemy in front of us; this had consequences that determined the intellectual decisions of the time and the horizons that followed. I shall try to speak simply, eschewing literary language. Yet it needs to be said that 1960s operaismo forged its own ‘high style’ of writing, chiselled, lucid, confrontational, in which we thought we grasped the rhythm of the factory workers in struggle against the bosses. Each historical passage chooses its own form of symbolic representation. Semi-literate partisans facing Nazi execution squads produced the Lettere di condannati a morte della Resistenza, a work of art.[1] In the same way, the boys who stood outside the gates of the Mirafiori factory in Turin in the early morning went home at night to read the young Lukács’s Soul and Form. Strong thought requires strong writing. A sense of the grandeur of the conflict awoke in us a passion for the Nietzschean style: to speak in a noble register, in the name of those beneath.

I have never forgotten the lesson we learned at the factory gates, when we arrived with our pretentious leaflets, inviting workers to join the anti-capitalist struggle. The answer, always the same, coming from the hands that accepted our bits of paper. They would laugh and say: ‘What is it? Money?’ A ‘rough pagan race’ indeed. This was not the bourgeois mandate, enrichissez-vous; it was the word, wages, presented as an objectively antagonistic reply to the word, profit. Operaismoreworked Marx’s brilliant phrase—the proletariat attaining its own emancipation will free all humanity—to read: the working class, by following its own, partial interests, creates a general crisis in the relations of capital. Operaismo marked a way of thinking politically. Thought and history encountered each other in a direct, immediate and frontal clash. What is had to be exposed to analysis, reflection, criticism and judgement. What had been said and written on it came later.

The biographical account that follows retains an element of ambiguity between personal and generational registers. But I should say at the outset that myoperaismo was of a Communist kind. This was not the case for the most part, even in the early days; party members were never a majority within Italian workerism, nor dominant in Quaderni rossi or Classe operaia; the combination was perhaps my personal problem. Here I will describe the Lehrjahre—the formative apprenticeship years—of the operaisti, a limited but significant generational fraction. A clumsy historian of events, as well as ideas, I will try to explain the complex, early stabs at the operaisti argument, and some of what came after.

Rupture of fifty-six

One key date emerges as a strategic locus for us all: 1956. Several things made that year ‘unforgettable’, but I would stress the transition—in effect, an epistemological rupture—from a party truth to a class truth. The time span from the Soviet Twentieth Party Congress to the Hungarian events constituted a sequence of leaps in the awareness of a young generation of intellectuals. I sensed, before I consciously thought it, that the twentieth century ended there. We awoke from the dogmatic slumber of historicity. In Italy, the rule of the proper noun, as substantive or adjective, materialist or idealist—the De Sanctis–Labriola–Croce–Gramsci line—had exercised an unparalleled cultural hegemony in politics. Thanks to Togliatti’s charisma, a powerful group of pci leaders had formed around it in the post-war period, and now set about putting it to work. At the Istituto Gramsci you could encounter party members from the Directorate and the Secretariat. They didn’t write books, or get improbable ghost-writers to do so for them. They read books. And between one initiative and the next, they discussed what they thought of them.

At a certain point a strange-looking character arrived from Sicily—he had been teaching in Messina: tall, wiry, with a hooked nose and hawkish face. He spoke in difficult language, and his writing was even harder to understand. But Della Volpe took apart, piece by piece, the cultural line of the Italian Communists, paying no heed to orthodox allegiances. [2] To be honest: we freed ourselves from the pci’s Gramscian ‘national-popular’, but a certain intellectual aristocratism clung to us still. Understanding was more important than persuasion; toiling over the concept created difficulties with the word. Today the opposite is true—ease of discourse means dispensing with thought. The approach we took then seems all the more valuable now, when the triumph of mediatized vulgarity over political language is complete. Ours was a school of ascetic intellectual rigour, which came at the cost of a slightly self-referential isolation. Science against ideology—that was the paradigm. Marxcontra Hegel, like Galileo against the Scholastics, or Aristotle against the Platonists. Then, broadly speaking, we outgrew this schema as far as content was concerned, while retaining its lessons with regard to method. On reflection, it was precisely on this basis that, from 1956 onwards, while others—the majority—were rediscovering the value of bourgeois freedoms, we few were given the chance to discover, one step at a time, by trial and error, the horizons of communist liberty.

I remain unsure about the choice of political tactics at that point—not what was ‘correct’, but what would have been most useful. It’s true that, at times, little depends on your own decisions and much on circumstances, openings, encounters. But there was another path open to us in 1956: that of political growth within the mass-membership pci, whose leadership had embarked upon a period of ‘renewal in continuity’. What would this second path have entailed? A long march through the organization; a cultural sacrifice on the altar of praxis; the exercise of that Renaissance political category, ‘honest dissimulation’. In my personal formation, Togliatti was the master politician par excellence. I ask myself if it would have been possible to be a Togliattian, but with a different culture—and answer, yes. Politics has an autonomy of its own, even from the cultural framework that sustains and at times legitimates it. We let ourselves get carried away by the fascinating pleasure of alternative thinking. But the lingering doubt remains that the other path may have been the right one: saying a little less and doing a little more. The theoretical discovery of the ‘autonomy of the political’ took place within the practical experience of operaismo; it was only its historical-conceptual elaboration that came later—and with it, the realization of having failed to reach a synthesis of ‘inside and against’.

Some years ago, I wrote: ‘We young communist intellectuals were right to be on the side of the Hungarian insurgents. But—this is the paradox of the revolution in the West—the socialist State was not wrong in bringing the contest to an end with tanks.’ [3] This is the kind of sentence that even one’s closest friends, precisely because they wish you well, pretend not to have read. Yet resolving this Oedipal enigma of the twentieth-century labour movement was exactly the task that confronted us. It is easy to choose between right and wrong; what’s hard is when you have to choose between two rights, both of them internal to your side. The dilemma is whether to pursue the passion of belonging or the calculus of possibilities. The two rights of 1956 were also the two wrongs, dividing those who saw only the possible development of what would be called ‘socialism with a human face’ from those whose sole yardstick was immediate control over emplacements, in the crossfire between the two opposing blocs.

Yet one of the most significant critical analyses of the Soviet system came from within operaismo. Rita Di Leo’s Operai e sistema sovietico demonstrated that starting from the point of view of the workers made it possible to comprehend a great deal more than the capitalist factory. [4] The workers’ political experiment par excellence was here brought critically into play. It remained an extremely isolated analysis: truth and fact coincided too closely for it to be welcomed by the two dominant, opposing ideologies.

A Bildungsroman

It was in the early 1960s that an operaista group began to form spontaneously. Not in the way that ‘groups’ became institutionalized in the early 1970s. Ours was an original, completely informal way of coming together, politically and culturally. It is strange how, over time, a sort of mutual affection has remained, even among those comrades who did not make the same journey from Quaderni rossi to Classe operaia. I still feel a deep sympathy, recalling the human qualities of people such as Bianca Beccalli, Dario and Liliana Lanzardo, Mario Miegge, Giovanni Mottura, Vittorio Rieser, Edda Saccomani, Michele Salvati and more. Quaderni rossi was a beautiful title for a journal, with an evocative simplicity, eloquent in itself. ‘Notebooks’ expressed the will for research, analysis and study. The red of the cover was the sign of a decision, a commitment to be this. To start the writing, and therefore the reading, on the front cover—black on red—was a brilliant idea on Panzieri’s part.

Raniero—he died in 1964, in his early forties—was one of those fated to spend too little time on this earth. Enough, though, to leave a trace. Remembering him today, thinking about him again, I feel a nostalgia for a lost political humanity. He was not by nature a romantic hero, but became one by force of circumstance. He wanted to go from being an organizer of operaismo to being the organizer of workers’ culture. But he couldn’t really organize anything. There lay the charm of his limitations, so similar to our own—to mine in particular—which made us feel close to him. Panzieri’s Marx was that of Luxemburg, not Lenin. Like Rosa, he read Capital and imagined the revolution. Unlike Lenin, who read Capital in order to organize the revolution. He was not, and could never have been, a Communist. His tradition was that of revolutionary syndicalism, with a dose of the anarchic socialism that the oldpsi historically bore within itself. But ‘workers’ control’ was a magic word that woke us from that other dogmatic slumber—the Socialists’ ‘party of all the people’.

To walk with Raniero at night through the streets of Rome or Milan—not the hated Turin—was to realize Benjamin’s idea of ‘losing oneself’ in the streets of a city. There is an art, too, to losing oneself in the polis—that of politics; we put all our efforts into mastering that art. More than once we got lost and found ourselves on the boundary that divides one side from another, without ever crossing it. We preferred enlightened bosses, but only the better to fight the war that interested us. We were not enamoured of progressive democracy, but used it as a more advanced field of struggle. Intuitively, we recognized the reformists of the left as serious functionaries of the capitalist general intellect (reigning today at the Euro-global level). We valued the movementist impulse as a passion, rather than as a fact. It was an event of the political imagination which we thought about constantly—and practised, a far more serious matter.

Quaderni rossi turned on the lights inside the factory, focused the lens and took a photograph, in which the relations of production stood out with startling clarity. Whatever has been said about ex-workerist intellectuals, there is always a consensus that the analyses of its workers’ enquiries were ‘lucid’. Operaismoopened up a new way of engaging in sociology: Weberian methodology mixed with the politics of Marxist analysis. In that sense, looking back between Quaderni rossiand Classe operaia, or between Vittorio Rieser and Romano Alquati, there was less disagreement than we thought at the time. The debt of Italian sociology tooperaismo is now widely recognized; but it was also a context in which new ways of history were being envisaged. Umberto Coldagelli and Gaspare De Caro opened a critical path with their ‘Marxist research hypotheses on contemporary history’, inQuaderni rossi 3. Coldagelli began his long venture into the political and institutional history of France; Sergio Bologna began research on Germany, Nazism and the working class.

Paths through purgatory

Our disagreement with Panzieri and the sociologists of Quaderni rossi arose over the idea and practice of politics; nothing else. The primacy of politics was present from the start in Classe operaia, launched in 1963 as ‘the political newspaper of the workers in struggle’. The slogan of my editorial, ‘Lenin in England’, in the first issue—’first the workers, then capital’; that is, it is workers’ struggles that drive the course of capitalist development—that was politics: will, decision, organization, conflict. The movement from analysing workers’ conditions, as Quaderni rossi continued to do, to intervening in the claims they advanced for their class interests, was what gave the leap from the journal to the newspaper its meaning. And if Quaderni rossieffected an innovation in content, Classe operaia was also a revolution in forms. The choice of graphics was a matter of high-level craftsmanship; poets and writers, from Babel to Brecht, Mayakovsky to Eluard, crowded its pages; it pioneered comic-strip political satire—the victorious dragon chasing a fleeing Saint George, in a reversal of bondsman and lord. We saw Classe operaia as the Politecnico—the legendary post-war cultural weekly—of the factory workers.

Inscribed on the paper’s red masthead were Marx’s words: ‘But the revolution is thorough. It is still on its journey through purgatory. It goes about its business methodically.’ Die Revolution ist gründig. Togliatti’s translation/interpretation: it goes to the bottom of things. Not bad. That aber at the beginning was crucial; a significant doubt. Today we no longer know if it is still working methodically, or perhaps precariously, or whether it has in fact retired. Long, slow periods of restoration are prone—more than other epochs—to will-o’-the-wisps of revolutionary illusion; between 1848 and 1871, Marx saw several of them. From our small corner, we saw others, and this would later be one of the selection criteria for those who took the operaista experience onto the field of struggle. Today the famous split within Quaderni rossi may seem at first glance to have been due to the incompatibility of figures such as Panzieri and Romano Alquati. They came together on the basis of a shared research project, but could not coexist. In Alquati, intellectual disarray was raised to the level of genius. He saw not so much what is, as what was coming into being. He told us that it was only as an adult, when he was finally able to buy himself some spectacles, that he realized fields were green. Alquati would invent, and thus intuit; he would say he was always a step ahead. But it was he who showed us how the young fiat workers were waging their struggle.

In other words, we brought together a fine old madhouse. During our meetings, we would spend half the time talking, the rest laughing. And apart from a few rank-and-file pci militants, I’ve never yet met people of higher human worth than those I associated with first at Quaderni rossi and then at Classe operaia: such selfless public interventions, free of all personal ambition; such a straightforward sense of commitment; and not least, such a disenchanted, self-ironizing way of sharing collective work. The comrades from Quaderni rossi are better known, and have been pardoned by the inimical times that followed, welcomed into the Parnassus of the well-intentioned. The Classe operaia comrades are less cited and more often denounced; I remember them with infinite nostalgia. These young men and women did not theorize ‘a new way of doing politics’. They practised it.

Our workerism

What, then, is operaismo? An experience of intellectual formation, with years of novicehood and pilgrimage; an episode in the history of the workers’ movement, oscillating between forms of the struggle and organizational solutions; an attempt to break with Marxist orthodoxy, in Italy and beyond, on the relations between workers and capital; an attempted cultural revolution in the West. In this last sense,operaismo was also a specifically twentieth-century event. It emerged at the exact moment of transition when the tragic greatness of the century turned on itself, moving from a permanent state of exception to new ‘normal’, epochless time. Looking back on the 1960s, we can see those years had a transitional function. The maximum disorder renewed the existing order. Everything changed so that everything essential could stay the same.

The factory worker that we encountered was a twentieth-century figure. We never used the term ‘proletariat’: ‘our’ workers were not like those of Engels’s Manchester but more like the ones in Detroit. We didn’t bring The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 with us to the factories, we brought the struggle of the workers against work in the Grundrisse. We were not moved by an ethical revolt against factory exploitation, but by political admiration for the practices of insubordination that they invented. Our operaismo should be given credit for not falling into the trap of Third Worldism, of the countryside against the city, of the long farmers’ marches. We were never Chinese and the Cultural Revolution of the East left us cold, estranged, more than a little sceptical and indeed strongly critical of it. Red was, and is, our favourite colour; but we know that when guards or brigades take it up, only the worst aspects of human history can come from it.

But we welcomed the fact that twentieth-century workers had disrupted the ‘long and glorious’ history of the lower classes, with their desperate rebellions, their millennial heresies, their recurrent and generous attempts—always painfully repressed—at breaking their chains. In the great factories, the conflict was almost equal. We won and we lost, day by day, in a permanent trench war. We were excited by the forms of struggle but also by its timing, the moments seized, the conditions imposed, the objectives pursued and the means to pursue them: asking for nothing more than was possible, nothing less than what could be obtained. It was another penetrating discovery to find that, during the long phase of seeming quiescence at fiat—from 1955 (the internal-commission election defeat) to the return of general contractual struggles in 1962—there had not been worker passivity but another kind of wild-cat struggle: the salto della scocca (‘skipping a chassis’), sabotage on the assembly line, the insubordinate use of Taylorist production schedules.

Yes, these workers were the children of the anti-fascist workers of 1943, who had rescued warehouses and machinery from Nazi destruction. But they were also heirs to the factory occupations of the revolutionary years, 1919–20, when the red flag waved over the factories, testimony to the will to do as in Russia. In the forced concentration of industrial labour in Italy between the 1950s and the 60s, the needs of breakneck capitalist development created an unprecedented crucible of historical experiences, daily needs, union dissatisfaction and political demands; this was what the operaisti were trying—naively, no doubt—to interpret. Blessed naivety which made us—Fortini said it well—’as wise as doves’. Operaismo was our university; we graduated in class struggle—entitling us not to teach, but to live. The workers’ view became a political means of seeing the world, and a human way of operating within it, by always staying on the same side. The fact is that the whole history of the first half of the twentieth century converged on the figure of the mass worker; only the worker-subject who emerged in that time, between 1914 and 1945, and grew up after it, could rise to the height of that history.

Yet with the 1960s we were already entering the declining half of the century; only the miserable course of the decades that followed, through to the end of the century and beyond, could make it seem a miraculous season of new beginnings. The qualitative difference between unrest and revolution requires deeper investigation. To criticize power is one thing, to put it in crisis is another. The 1960s emancipation of the individual led to the restoration of the old balance of forces, now burnished with some new reforms. We were the sacrificial victims in this process, which was not an anomaly but a normal feature of politics. To understand this is not enough to overturn it, but it is a necessary precondition. The whole discussion on the ‘autonomy of the political’—which originated in operaismo and spread from there—was about this. Workers’ struggles determine the course of capitalist development; but capitalist development will use those struggles for its own ends if no organized revolutionary process opens up, capable of changing that balance of forces. It is easy to see this in the case of social struggles in which the entire systemic apparatus of domination repositions itself, reforms, democratizes and stabilizes itself anew.

A paradox: the most culturally backward struggles—for ’emancipation’—had social consequences that were favourable to labour, forcing capital to make concessions: the welfare state, constitutional reforms, the role of unions and parties. Yet the more culturally advanced struggles—for liberation—ushered in a vengeful capitalist resurgence, the pensée unique of a single possible social form, and the subordination of everything human to a universal theory and practice of bourgeois life. Maybe, as conservatives and liberals would chorus, the first struggles were right and the second ones wrong? I believe we need to look for another explanation. In the struggles for emancipation, the organized workers’ movement played a central, active part. In the struggles for liberation, it was the crisis of that movement which played an active role—and, paradoxically, the struggles exacerbated that crisis. Didoperaismo also function in this way? I leave the question open.

Operaismo and the pci

Yet there was a simple fact which could not be eliminated by an act of political will. Many of those who made up the ‘alternative subjectivity’ of the 1960s had been formed outside, and were to some extent oriented against, the official, institutional forms of the labour movement and its parties. Thus in 1962, the fiat workers’ dispute over a new contract became the opportunity for an extraordinary public agitation, which made itself felt at national level. This, we learned, was how the political centrality of the working class operated, in practice: putting back on the country’s agenda, each time it erupted, Brecht’s proposal to the Paris anti-fascist conference of 1935: ‘Comrades, let us talk about property relations!’ But the pci did not acquit itself of its allotted function of translating the great workers’ struggles of the early 60s into high politics. Contrary to what is commonly supposed, the ‘party of the working class’ was more willing to listen to the 68 of the students than to the 69 of the Italian workers. (Here too there is proof ex post facto: in the years that followed, the Party leadership was replenished far more from the ranks of the students than from those of the workers.) At the same time, a leftist anti-communism developed which requires a historical analysis. Here it was fundamentally an anti-pci, composed of intellectual forces that still exist today (despite the disappearance of their antagonist), who grew up under the sign of a movement, a generation, an outlook; a mode of feeling, intimacy and communication rather than of being, thought and struggle. The vanguards of those days have now been joined by an army of repentants.

This phenomenon intensified after Togliatti’s death in 1964, not just because of a real decline in the party’s capacity for mediation, but also because of the profound transformations that were taking place within Italian society. It was only with the late 1950s and early 60s that modern capitalism really took off in Italy, and the ancient little world of civil society, embedded in the memory of the nineteenth century, finally came to an end. The small-minded ‘Italietta’ of the Risorgimento still weighed on those of us born in the 1930s; we would learn more from studying that decade than from experiencing all those that followed. We were vaccinated against the vetero-italica disease. The whole of Italian history up to that point had been a minor story of the twentieth century. Those of us attempting to think in modern, disenchanted ways felt its weight on our shoulders—from the limitations of the Italian language to the blindness of its culture. As we discovered, reading Locke and Montesquieu, and examining the Westminster model, the entire pre-fascist era was, after all, a caricature of Western liberal systems. And the two ‘red biennia’, so different from one another—1919–20 and 1945–46—were magical moments that could only have emerged from the ashes of the great wars.

The quiet strength of the pci was to place itself within this minor history of longue durée, scaling back its objectives, calling a halt to any impulsiveness, organizing a ‘what is to be done’ that never went beyond the possible, being careful never to reach for the impossible. The pci’s ‘national-popular’ was a bête noire for us workerists, at the level of culture even before that of politics; this was something we understood early on. Our comrade Alberto Asor Rosa wrote Scrittori e popolo in 1964, at the age of thirty: an essay on—and against—populist literature in Italy. [5]His book marked the beginnings of a crisis in an aspect of Italian political culture that had remained hegemonic up to that point. Yet without that popular—not populist—politics, we could never have had reason to sing, Avanti, avanti, il gran partito noi siamo dei lavoratori . . . The real strength of the pci was its conscious strategy of rooting itself, lucidly, culturally, in the people that had emerged from this history.

It is a commonplace to say that the pci was the real Italian social democracy. It was not. Rather, it was the Italian version of a communist party. The Italian road to Socialism had been a long one, stretching off far into the distance: behind us was the history of a nation, the reality of a people, the tradition of a culture. Gramsci’s life and work synthesized these things, and bequeathed their hegemonic intellectual legacy to the totalizing political action of Togliatti. Thus reformism was, in an original sense, the political form that the revolutionary process took in that context. This cycle concluded with the dissolution of the myth of capitalist backwardness, which had long persisted in the pci, even during the rise of capitalist development in Italy. The most orthodox Togliatti faction, the Amendola group, cultivated this myth beyond any justifiable point and made it the social basis for a cultural common sense. This is where the split occurred between the party and young emerging intellectual forces, who found support in parts of the union sector, especially in the North, and in the restive ranks of the Party. [6]

In fact the northern Italian workers’ struggles of the early 60s were closer to those of New Deal America than to those of the southern Italian farm workers in the 1950s. The Apulian labourer who became a mass worker in Turin was the symbol of the end of ‘Italietta’ history. Togliatti had a firm grasp of the superstructural and political aspects of the early centre-left, but was unable to see the social, material causes that had brought them about and the central role of the great factory. Quaderni rossiand Classe operaia saw more clearly than the pci journals, Società and Rinascita, the factory–society–politics nexus as the strategic location in which capitalist transformations took place. One need only turn the pages of the operaisti journals: correspondence from factories, on-site analysis of the restructuring of the production process, assessments of management strategies, critique of demands, evaluation of contracts, interventions in struggles, international issues; and also editorials on the key political questions of the time.

Culture of crisis

The hypothesis that the chain had to be broken not where capital was weakest but where the working class was strongest set the operaista agenda. Even now I am not sure whether a relish for intellectual adventure and the exercise of political responsibility can be truly compatible; yet they coexisted for us, in the political friendships born on that basis. If not much else came out of it, at least we found a way of surviving, with an enjoyable hominis dignitate, in a hostile world. In this sense, our operaismo was essentially a form of cultural revolution, which produced significant intellectual figures rather than determining historical events. More than a way of doing politics, it defined a way of doing political culture. This was a serious, high culture: specialization without academicization, aiming at a practice with strategic consistency and historical depth. It was a matter of restoring, or perhaps implanting, a post-proletarian aristocracy of the people against the existing drift of a bourgeois populism. We saw a subject without form—or rather, with a traditional, historical form which was in crisis. Our new social subject, the mass worker, was no longer contained in the old political form. A subject that is born of crisis is a critical subject. A passionate love affair would later develop between operaismo and nineteenth-century Central European thought: a love that was not disappointed, and that I would say was returned, given the work produced within that framework. It is enough to skim through magazines such as Angelus NovusContropiano and later—to a certain extent—Laboratorio politico, to be convinced that for us, communication has never been separate from thought.

Much ink has been spilled in controversies over anti-Hegelianism in Italianoperaismo. Hegelianism was to be found, first and foremost, in that ideology of the workers as a ‘universal class’, saturated with Kantian ethics in the era of the Second International, and with dialectical materialism in that of the Third. That image of the proletariat, which ‘by freeing itself frees all of humanity’, present in the nineteenth-century Marx, was shattered by Munch’s scream, after which followed the great breakdown of all forms in the early twentieth century. Here we are speaking of artistic avant-gardes, but also of scientific and philosophical ones, and the revolution of all other collective human forms, social, economic, political, under the tragic impact—1914!—of the first great European, and global, civil war. The tide of human progress—the belle époque—crashed against the wall of the worst massacre ever seen. But where danger is, deliverance also grows. Out of that inferno came the principle of hope: the most advanced revolutionary experiment ever launched. It was the Bolsheviks, alone and cursed, who made the leap; all that followed, in the course of their experiment, cannot cancel the gratitude which humanity owes for that heroic effort. One need not be a communist to understand this. And whoever does not understand—or does not want to understand—it is missing a part of the soul they need in order to exist and to act politically in this world. We had the good fortune to set out with this thought. We added the virtù of the ‘worker’s perspective’, and so began the intellectual adventure recounted here.

Critique of 1968

Two good twists of fate: we lived 1956 while we were still young, and 1968 when we no longer were. This allowed us to grasp the political kernel lying beneath the ideological crust of those dates. We could respond to 1956 without the constraint of the historic shackles that weighed upon the previous generation; we could seize the possibilities it opened up. It was a time when history and politics were in full flow, imposing themselves on everyday life; we had no choice but to engage with events, to question ourselves, make decisions, choose between two sides. I never accepted the notions of good and evil used by the Church to tame the faithful. But I understood through hard experience that evil means those long, dismal periods when nothing happens; good manifests itself when you are forced to take a stand; it’s the fall into sin that awakens you to freedom. Similarly, nihilism is not produced by dark periods of barbarism but by false glimmers of civilization—against which it is not the worst response.

There was no room for narcissistic gambolling or analysing the unconscious in 1956—at least, not in that troubled land which was the international communist movement. The political calamity triggered a great cultural crisis. Little by little, as dramatic events unfolded—the Twentieth Party Congress of the cpsu, Khrushchev’s secret speech, the Hungarian revolt and its destruction—everything was accounted for. Togliatti’s mandarins trod warily between the contradictions of the Soviet system, vulgarizing the Gramscian edict against Croce: less dialectic of opposites, more dialectic of differences. We were young and free-spirited: naive as it may appear, we wanted clarity rather than confusion, yet we were offered a delicatechiaroscuro. It was the first ‘no’—agonizing but emphatic—that we gave to the party leaders. Not having lived through the war against fascism, we did not feel that iron bond with the socialist motherland: it had not become the focus of our lives. For our elders, anti-fascism had been a political and moral imperative, capable of leaving its stamp on one’s existence forever; a commitment of great human intensity, from which no thinking heart could escape in the climate of those times. Born in the 1930s, we were too young for the anti-fascist resistance, and never feared in the post-war era that fascism would return. As militants, we experienced the Cold War as a ‘clash of civilizations’, not a conflict over spheres of influence. From that point on there was no room in our thinking for ‘magnificent and progressive destinies’. Communism was no longer the final stop on a railway line that led mankind inexorably towards progress. Following Marx, it would be the self-criticism of the present; following Lenin, it would be the organization of a force capable of breaking the weakest link in history’s chain.

This reiteration of 1956 is not excessive. Without that leap, operaismo would never have existed: we would not have had Panzieri’s ‘Theses on Workers’ Control’, nor would we have come together, as intellectuals of the crisis. [7] The year 1968 would still have happened—it sprang from other roots, from the modernizing imperatives of capitalist society—but perhaps it would have assumed a different form, with more flower children and fewer apprentice revolutionaries. We witnessed 1968 as adults, which was another stroke of luck, for to experience that year in one’s youth turned out, in the long run, to be a great misfortune (as Marx said it was to be a wage-labourer). The appearance took hold and the real substance was lost. The appearance—that is, what the movement expressed symbolically—was its anti-authoritarian character. In its own way, this worked. The substance was its character as revolt. This did not last: in individuals it was extinguished and absorbed, in groups it was diverted and bastardized.

Those of us who had lived through the struggles of the factory workers in the early 60s looked on the student protests with sympathetic detachment. We had not predicted a clash of generations, though in the factories we had met the new layer of workers—especially young migrants from the South—who were active and creative, always in the lead (certainly compared to the older workers who were exhausted by past defeats). But in the factories, the bond between fathers and sons still held together; it was among the middle classes that it had snapped. This was an interesting phenomenon, but not decisive for changing the structural balance of forces between the classes. At Valle Giulia, in March 68, we were with the students against the police—not like Pasolini. But at the same time, we knew it was a struggle behind enemy lines, to determine who would be in charge of modernization. The old ruling class, the war-time generation, was exhausted. A new elite was pressing forward into the light; a new ruling class for the globalized capitalism that lay in the future. The Cold War had long become a hindrance; the crisis of politics, parties and ‘the public’ was upon us. The poison of ‘anti-politics’ was first injected into the veins of society by the movements of 68. The maturation of civil society and the conquest of new rights transformed collective consciousness. But first and foremost, these transformations were beneficial for Italian capitalism and its pursuit of modernity. The re-privatization of the whole system of social relations began with this period, which has not yet come to a close.

Paradoxical outcomes

The remarkable youth of 68 did not understand—nor did we, though we would grasp it soon enough—this truth: to demolish authority did not automatically mean the liberation of human diversity; it could mean, and this is what happened, freedom specifically for the animal spirits of capitalism, which had been stamping restlessly inside the iron cage of the social contract that the system had seen as an unavoidable cure for the years of revolution, crisis and war. The year 68 was a classic example of the heterogenesis of ends. The slogan ce n’est qu’un débutcould only be successful for a very brief period, against the backdrop of an eruption across the Western world which constituted the strength of the movement. To chantla lutte continue was already an acknowledgment of defeat.

In the long run the game was lost. The radicalization of discourse on the autonomy of the political from the early 70s was born from this failure of the insurrectionary movements, from the workers’ struggles to the youth revolt, that had spanned the decade of the 60s. What was lacking was the decisive intervention of an organized force, which could only have come from the existing workers’ movement, and therefore the Communists. A concerted initiative could have pushed the reluctant European social-democratic parties towards undertaking a historic reconstruction, for which the moment was ripe. We should have pushed for a new ‘politics from above’ inside the rank-and-file movements, to counter the implicit drift towards anti-politics, and thus to disrupt the social and political balance of forces, rather than restabilizing it. At that moment, another world was possible. Later, and for a long time, it would not be. The opportunity was not taken, the fleeting moment passed, and the dead reconquered the living. Real processes defeated imaginary subjects. In some respects, things went better in the us than in Europe. There, the American Goliath was humiliated by the Vietnamese David. Here, we passed from the Paris rebellion to the invasion of Prague, from Quaderni rossi to the nouveaux philosophes, from Woodstock to Piazza Fontana, and from the flower children to theanni di piombo. ‘The times they are a’ changing’: ten years after 68, the times really had changed. The Trilateral Commission dictated the tenets of the new world order and its civic religion.

In Italy, the era of classical operaismo was finished. Classe operaia took the controversial decision to declare its project exhausted. ‘Don’t subscribe,’ it told its readers with characteristic irony in the final issue, published in 1967, ‘we’re going now.’ What role might the ‘political newspaper of the workers in struggle’ have played, if it had still been alive during the events of 1968, with its compact, prestigious core of activists? Could it have influenced the movement, offered a lead, given it a political orientation? I don’t think so. The decision to close it down was taken to avoid the looming risk of turning into a ‘groupuscule’, with all the usual deformations: minoritarianism, self-referentiality, hierarchization, ‘dual layers’, unconsciously imitating the practices of the ‘dual state’, and so on. At best, small groups were fatally led to repeat the vices of larger organizations. There was thus no continuity between political operaismo and the potentially anti-political movements of 1968. Of course, we smiled when we heard people chanting ‘student power’, but I remember vividly the moment when a student march on the Corso in Rome unexpectedly raised the cry of ‘workers’ power’. In fact, if operaismo was diffident about 68, 68 discovered operaismo, and long before the ‘hot autumn’ of 69. ‘Students and workers, united in the struggle’ was a thrilling, mobilizing slogan, helping to form a generous generation of militants, still quietly present in the pores of civil society.

Classe operaia shut down just as the Eleventh Party Congress of the pci was opening. There was never a more striking coincidence of opposites. I was then on leave from the party, but party membership—conscription by one’s own free will—was taken for granted: this was so before the operaista experience, and remained the case as long as il partito existed. But we did not involve ourselves in the bitter struggles at the top for the leadership that came after Togliatti. We were against Amendola without being for Ingrao. We did not like the idea of a single left-wing party for Italy, which would mean the explicit social-democratization of the pci. But above all we fought the Party’s right on the question of its analysis of Italian capitalism. We put forward, in true Marxist style, the concept of neo-capitalism, which we saw as a more advanced—and therefore more productive—terrain of struggle, while the other side had an outdated view of the Italian economy, compounded by an equally backward Soviet orthodoxy. For the international context, too, had been altered by the beginning of the Cold War détente and ‘peaceful coexistence’ between the two systems. Capital would need a new levy of political professionals, armed with a different cultural tradition—yet to be constructed—and with new intellectual tools. This would be a figure brought up to date for neo-capitalism, a combined specialist-cum-politician, able to operate skilfully within the contingencies of the disorder to come.

The Italian ‘hot autumn’ of 1969 was a spontaneous movement: this was also its limitation, its ephemeral character eventuating in its structuring role, within the medium-to-long term, of modernization without revolution. Operaismo was, at least in Italy, one of the founding premises of 1968; but at the same time, it made a substantive criticism of 68 in advance. In its turn, 1969 corrected a great deal and caused much more alarm. That was the real annus mirabilis. Nineteen sixty eight was born in Berkeley and baptized in Paris. It arrived in Italy still young and yet already mature, poised between workers and pci, exactly where we had positioned ourselves. Operaismo pushed 1968 beyond its premises. In 1969, the issue wasn’t anti-authoritarianism but anti-capitalism. Workers and capital found themselves physically face to face with one another. With the autunno caldo, wages exerted a direct effect on profits; the balance of power shifted in favour of the workers and to the disadvantage of the bosses. The idea of lotta operaia took on a general social dimension. This was clear in the two consequences that derived from it. First, a leap in national social consciousness and a political opening for consensus around the greatest opposition party, which still saw itself formally as the party of the working class. Second, the violent reaction of the system, which used all its defensive strategies, from legal concessions to state terrorism, from the secret service to the social compromise. The system’s aggressive response to the jolt administered by the autunno caldo swept the movement away—or, what amounted to the same thing, made it change course. It was this second path that predominated, and from it another history would flow.

All of this was already inscribed in the unresolved contradiction between struggles and organization—new struggles, therefore new organization—which had blocked the path of operaismo in its early phase. All attempts to connect with internal developments within the pci in the mid-60s went awry. The exceptional ‘human material’ which played such a major part in the experiment that was operaismo was not made for, was not organically adapted to, a political game in which one’s hypotheses had to be tested on different terrain from that which one has chosen oneself. The idea of ‘inside and against’—that sophisticated, perhaps overly complex principle that was expressed in its classic form as political operaismo—was unable to take root in flesh-and-blood individuals; it remained the statement of a method, indispensable for understanding but ineffective as a basis for action.

Leaden times

The true difference between our operaismo and the formal workerism of the pci lay in the concept of the political centrality of workers. We carried on this discussion right up till 1977, when we convened a conference on ‘workerism and worker centrality’ with Napolitano and Tortorella, in a leaden Padua, subjected to the non-pacifist forays of the so-called autonomi. [8] I do not here take 1977 as a date of key significance—a choice rather than an oversight. I agree that, compared to 1968, 1977 has more political weight and marks a more decisive social shift; much of the negative relation between new generations and politics was solved there, on that battlefield. But I’d like to say that the Italian workerism of the early 1960s did not lead in this direction. Viewed from the present, Classe operaia was closer toQuaderni rossi than it was to Negri’s Potere operaio, or to all those that went on to participate in autonomia operaia. The precise dividing line was as follows: these initial two projects, first magazine and then daily newspaper, took themselves to be critically inside the workers’ movement, while the later endeavours—grounded more in self-organization—placed themselves dangerously against that movement. Toni Negri’s intelligence is manifest in the theory of the transition from ‘mass worker’ tooperaio sociale, [9] but by that point the practical damage had already been done, and a violent waste of precious human resources had passed hopelessly to the wrong side.

Negri played a key role in the experience of Classe operaia; he was essential to the birth of the paper, and then to editorial work and distribution. With his feet planted firmly in the strategic location of Porto Marghera, he sensed developments and gave shape to his position. The experience of the Fordist–Taylorist worker—and the later criticism of this figure—lies at the root of all his later research. ‘Workers without allies’, cried the title of Classe operaia in March 1964, which had an editorial by Negri. That was a mistake. The system of alliances—employees, middle classes, Red Emilia—that the official workers’ movement had built on the basis of an advanced pre-capitalism certainly needed to be criticized and opposed. But a new system of alliances was coming into view within developed capitalism, with the new professionals emerging from the context of mass production, the consequent expansion of the market and spread of consumption, and the civil transformations and cultural shifts under way in the country. These were all ways in which the workers of 1962 anticipated the modernization of 1968 and the dawning post-modernity of 1977.

What followed was the paradoxical story of a general defeat, punctuated by illusory small-scale victories. Thus it went until the end of the 80s, when we were all forced to understand where history had ended up going. The leadership of the pci suffered, in a subordinate mode, the same fate as the ruling classes of the country. Modernization required a passing of the baton from the generations of war and resistance to the generations of peace and development. The movements of 68 supplied new personnel for this handover. What happened in the party was what happened in the circles of power: a new political class was not born; rather, in its place, a new administrative class emerged, always managerial, at the levels of both government and opposition. The whole Berlinguer leadership—as much with the historic compromise as with its alternative—proved to be nothing more than a tumultuous period of defence, that lined up il popolo comunista to contain and slow the neo-bourgeois flood. But at that point there was little else that could be done. In the last act of the tragedy, the Communist Party was rechristened as the Democratic Party of the Left. This was followed by the farce, when even the word ‘party’ disappeared, under pressure from anti-political populism. There were no more barriers. Just the flood.

From the 1980s onwards, neo-liberal capitalist restoration sapped the workers’ capacity for opposition. With the breaking of the weakest link in the anti-capitalist chain—the Soviet state—there was no longer any way to block the returning hegemonic power from taking absolute command. The newly declared dominance of capital was not just economic but social, political and cultural. It was at once theoretical and ideological, a combination of intellectual and mass common sense. Yet it’s worth stressing one final fact: for as long as the post-capitalist horizon remained open, the struggle to introduce elements of social justice within capitalism achieved some success. Once the revolutionary project was defeated, the reformist programme became impossible too. In this sense, the latest form of neo-liberal capitalism may prove ironically similar to the final forms of state socialism: incapable of reform.

Translated by Eleanor Chiari

[1] Piero Malvezzi and Giovanni Pirelli, eds, Lettere di condannati a morte della Resistenza italiana, 8 settembre 1943–25 aprile 1945, Turin 1952.

[2] See also Galvano Della Volpe, ‘The Marxist Critique of Rousseau’, nlri/59, Jan–Feb 1970, and ‘Settling Accounts with the Russian Formalists’, nlr i/113–114, Jan–April 1979.

[3] Tronti, La politica al tramonto, Turin 1998.

[4] Rita Di Leo, Operai e sistema sovietico, Bari 1970.

[5] Alberto Asor Rosa, Scrittori e popolo, Rome 1965.

[6] For the pci internal debate, see nlr i/13–14, Jan–Apr 1962.

[7] Raniero Panzieri, ‘Sette tesi sulla questione del controllo operaio’, Mondo Operaio, February 1958.

[8] For the conference proceedings see Tronti et al, Operaismo e centralità operaia, Rome 1978.

[9] Antonio Negri, Dall’operaio massa all’operaio sociale: intervista sull’operaismo, Milan 1979.