Mario Tronti illuminated the rifts in postwar Italy, inspiring a generation. Then he returned to the party.
The English translation of Mario Tronti’s Workers and Capital—the 1966 “bible” of Italian operaismo, according to the cliché — was announced in the May–June 1972 number of Radical America for “late 1972,” to be brought out by an obscure Saint Louis–based press whose only publication of note turned out to be a sociology of Haight-Ashbury hippies. “If we are correct,” the editors of the journal speculate, having published Tronti’s “The Struggle Against Labor” alongside a longer piece by Silvia Federici and Mario Montano synthesizing diverse strains of workerist thought, “the test of the hypotheses presented in both essays lies in the American seventies.” In fact, the wager advanced by Tronti in 1965—namely, that “the abolition of work by the working class and the violent destruction of capital are one and the same”—had its first test run in the mid-1960s United States (Watts, Detroit, Newark). At the height of the post-’68 radicalization, one could still plausibly prepare for a decade-long offensive by the working class itself against wage labor, the institutions of the workers’ movement, and the social category of the “worker.”
The book’s translation in full was put off for decades. It appears now, fifty years and change after its initial publication. Portions surfaced in the interim, with some of its chapters assuming lives of their own: “Lenin in England” and “The Strategy of Refusal,” to name just two. This parceling has its basis in the text itself: Workers and Capital is less a book than a compilation of articles and editorials published between 1962 and 1966, spread out over the brief lifetimes of Quaderni Rossi and, after that group dissolved, Classe Operaia, the publication of a collective by the same name lasting from 1964 to 1967. They are republished here, largely unrevised and in the order they appeared, in the form of a chronicle of the short-lived but “miraculously favorable class situation” of the Italian sixties. Verso includes here also a historical postscript dated December 1970, and written after Tronti had distanced himself from his earlier interventions and positions.
The pieces are highly abstract theoretical constructions, often involving the painstaking elaboration of specific categories — labor-power, social capital — derived from Marx’s Capital, with almost no direct reference to events contemporary or otherwise. Despite its renown as the theoretical summa of the Italian workerist current, readers familiar with historical reconstructions of this movement, such as Steve Wright’s superb Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism, will be struck by the absence of almost all the key concepts and methodologies associated with it. No “mass worker,” no “workers’ inquiry,” no “fragment on machines,” and no sustained reflection on the capitalist “use” of machinery. What Wright deems the methodological breakthrough of the operaisti, the analysis of class composition, is merely hinted at in these hundreds of pages. We find instead a rich web of analyses that continually return to the following themes: Marx’s theory as a class science; the subsumption of society under the logic of the factory, through a peculiar form of capitalist planning; postwar Italian capitalism as the center of global class struggle; the subordination of capitalist development to worker struggle; a sustained criticism of the workers’ movement’s “dynamic stabilization” of the capitalist order; and, throughout, a reconceptualization of the relationship between the working class and and its organization in the party.
Tronti’s insistence on the scientific character of Marx’s theory originates not from his first contacts with the Quaderni Rossi milieu, but from his proximity in the late 1950s to a minor, dissident current within the Italian Communist Party (PCI) represented by the philosopher Galvano Della Volpe and his protégé, Lucio Colletti. Their call for a return to Marx’s method of “determinate abstraction” was part of a struggle within the PCI against Antonio Gramsci’s “philosophy of praxis.” Palmiro Togliatti, leader of the PCI for decades, culled from Gramsci’s as-yet-unpublished Prison Notebooks now prevalent concepts such as hegemony, and used them as the theoretical scaffolding for a radical makeover of the PCI into a mass party on the model of social democracy. “Today it is we who know,” he declared in 1945, “how to defend the interests of the country, that is, of the nation.” Disarm the partisans, collaborate on the writing of a constitution, actively shape a class dynamic to make possible Italy’s transformation into an industrialized capitalist power: in short, carry out the long-overdue bourgeois revolution in Italy. Against such betrayals, Tronti describes his own theoretical strategy as a “Marxian purification of Marx,” advocating a return to Marx’s method of abstraction within an institutional and cultural milieu — the PCI and the wider labor movement — which had largely written off Capital as a relic of the previous century, “the book of the bourgeoisie,” as Gramsci called it. Tronti holds Workers and Capital, and the perspective opened by Classe Operaia, to be nothing less than a “theoretical rebirth of the working-class viewpoint.” Not, that is to say, the restitution of a correct doctrine but the reactivation of a living scientific program adequate to the “capitalism of today.”
For Tronti, Capital is at once a painstaking demolition of bourgeois science in its preeminent form, political economy, and the formulation of an ongoing scientific program Tronti aims to deepen. It is neither a theory of society nor of history, threadbare “fables for children at the nursery of historical materialism.” It does not “prefigure the future or recount the past, but only contributes to the destruction of the present.” Tronti sees his development of Marx’s program as an offensive against the current forms of bourgeois thought: economics, but also industrial sociology, which he calls “the most reprehensible bourgeois science that has yet existed.” The bourgeois sciences have had the upper hand since the 1870s; the great debacle of the workers’ movement was the abdication—the suppression—of the working-class viewpoint delineated by Capital, in favor of the categories and methods of bourgeois thought. Marxism should be a science of the proletariat: a theory of the working class carried out by and for the working class alone. It must take the political advances of the working class as its object, not capitalist development. Thus, and here is the rub, the greatest account on offer of the totality of social relations must be a paradoxically partial science, taking sides not simply against the capitalist class but against capitalist society as a whole. “Whoever has true hatred, he writes, “has truly understood.” The working-class point of view is “a partial view that theoretically grasps the totality precisely as a struggle to destroy this totality in practice.”
The bourgeoisie, though it speaks in the name of the whole, also takes sides in the class struggle. The capitalist class alone understood the “scientific significance of the October revolution”; it set out, particularly in the post-1945 period, to organize the anarchy of capitalist society. In “the Plan of Capital,” the whole of society is subordinated to one of its parts, the factory; capital “begins its process of internal colonization,” such that the “circuit of bourgeois society is finally complete—production, distribution, exchange and consumption.” The error—or fate—of the workers’ movement was to collaborate actively in “capitalist development,” primarily by managing class antagonism in the interests of a “dynamic stabilization” of the system. It entered into this arrangement with the express purpose and illusion of one day taking ownership of this same society: its factories, workforce, cities, supply chains, and industrial sociology.
The enemy of the working class, at a certain phase of capitalist development, is therefore no longer merely the capitalist class, but “the society of capital.” “On the one side stands the working class,” writes Tronti, “on the other capitalist society: that is how the class struggle is plotted out today.” “Big industry and its science are not the prize of whoever wins the class struggle,” he adds, “they are the battlefield itself. So long as the enemy occupies that field, we must spray it with bullets.” Yet the “colonization” of the social process under the pressure of capitalist accumulation reaches as far, Tronti argues, as the organized bodies of the workers’ movement themselves, and the forms of class struggle they lead, conducted within the institutionalized frameworks that primarily serve to fulfill capital’s own requirements for self-expansion. The incorporation of these vectors of struggle is so seamless they come to function as a necessary “articulation” of capitalist development. “Modern capital cannot do without a modern union,” because the needs of capital must be “camouflaged and clothed as working-class demands”: within this postwar dispensation, capital “expresses its objective needs through the subjective demands of the workers.” The celebrated hypothesis of the workerist current, according to which capitalist development is understood to be subordinated to working-class struggles, driven by rather than driving them, is glossed by Tronti in this dark light: “the platform of demands which workers have for decades presented to the capitalist have had . . . only one result: the improvement of exploitation.”
It is under these conditions that class struggle in Italy began to mutate beginning in the early 1960s, as workers began to act in a “one-sided” manner, without regard for the trade-union calculus that promised proletarian discipline in exchange for higher wages. Tronti calls this insubordination “the strategy of refusal.” When the enemy is no longer merely the capitalist class but capitalist society, any revolutionary break from that society is predicated on the working class’s “political refusal to be an active part of the whole social process.” Refusal means rupture with the mediating function assured by trade-union demands; it can even mean targeting the workers’ movement itself, in its institutionalized form, as a foe to be criticized and opposed (and, if need be, destroyed). To struggle against labor requires proletarians to take themselves, their own condition as wage-laborers, as a limit to be overcome. To mount an assault on the society of capital, the working class must “reach the point of having as its enemy the whole of capital, including itself as part of capital. Labor should see labor-power as a commodity as its enemy.”
In sum, Workers and Capital wages unrelenting war against the opportunism and reformism of the labor movement in postwar Italy (echoing analyses in the US by James Boggs and Martin Glaberman from the 1950s). With regard to “the party,” however, it is more circumspect. In these pages, the term has an array of referents. It is first an “autonomous organization of the working class,” later a Bolshevik-style formation circa 1917. On occasion, the book imagines it might operate within the PCI, sometimes with the fantasy of adapting it to a revolutionary “use,” but more often merely to block the wholesale “social-democratization” of the Party. To be sure, the PCI is the target of many of his reflections, its post-“Salerno turn” drift attributed to a litany of errors, strategic and theoretical, in particular its material separation from class struggle at the point of production. In the society of capital, the economy and the political sphere are no longer distinct moments, but converge in the guise of the “the Plan.” Time and again, Tronti tells us new material conditions require that “the political relationship between class and party must be born in the factory,” without which the party devolves, as had the PCI, into a “wax holding together the historic bloc . . .[and] blocking off any revolutionary perspective.” Despite this criticism of the PCI’s material separation from the immediacy of struggles around production, Tronti himself insists on the necessarily extrinsic relationship between these struggles and the class party. Workers and Capital daringly stands the classical ordering of these two moments on its head; it is the class, not the party, that formulates its own strategic trajectory, for which refusal is the watchword.
But though the working class “spontaneously possesses the strategy of its own movements and development,” Tronti deems the class incapable of “identifying it, expressing it, and organizing it.” The party is demoted to a tactical function, yet all the more essential for it. The “class does not possess the properly tactical moment”; only the party can provide it. The tactical moment is minimal, but unavoidable. The class must be “armed from the outside with the intervention of tactics,” must indeed be commanded by “a conscious, subjective intervention from above.” The abbreviation of the party to its tactical moment renders party synonymous with “the party’s leadership,” a leadership which amounts to sheer insurrectionary decision.“Without Lenin,” he concludes, “no one would have been capable of understanding what was the right moment, the right day, the right hour to unleash the final offensive and seize power; the class alone never manages to do this, and the party managed it only when Lenin was actually in the party.”
The strike wave in Russia that suddenly erupted in 1905 forced workers to invent a spontaneous form of organization that would again play a decisive role in the revolutionary process of 1917. One well-placed observer of their emergence saw this invention as a clean break with the party formations typical of the still-young Second International. The parties of social democracy were but “organizations within the proletariat” whose “immediate aim was to achieve influence over the masses”; the soviets, to the contrary, were “from the start, organizations of the proletariat” whose “aim was the struggle for revolutionary power.” Tronti has nothing to say about this discovery thrown up in the course of class combat (and in 1917 drawing together workers and soldiers alike, all armed), save to remind us that it was Lenin, alone, who “imposed on everyone . . . on the party, on the soviets, on the masses and on the workers,” the “directive to launch the final offensive.” Thus, in a curious reversal, the material separation of the party from the struggles around production, for which Tronti criticizes the PCI, is reproduced by Tronti in his call for a “tactical” party, external to those struggles and therefore—in Tronti’s reasoning—alone able to give the workers and their self-organized struggles direction, indeed, directives.
Mere months after pronouncing these words, Tronti returned to the PCI. The detachment of the Party from worker initiatives was now framed as the “autonomy of the political.” Meanwhile, the greatest Italian worker insurrection of the postwar period, Italy’s so-called “Hot Autumn,” would shortly set the factories afire. It was followed by a near-decade of autonomous worker struggles in Italy, while the PCI signed its own death certificate via a “historic compromise” with the center-right Christian Democrats. In America, the “struggle against work” that Tronti anticipated in 1966 found its match in the surge of strikes and sabotages at GM’s Lordstown, Ohio plant, while US leftists turned inward, fixated on party-building and line “struggles.” These events forced open a question Workers and Capital could not pose: can the party be anything other than an agent of bourgeois revolutions, a ministering angel of capitalist development?