Operaism and post-Operaism by Sandro Mezzadra

Operaism and post-Operaism: entry for the Encyclopedia of Revolution by Sandro Mezzadra


Sandro Mezzadra (Dipartimento di Politica, Istituzioni, Storia – Università di Bologna): sandro.mezzadra@unibo.it

Word count: 3270

Operaismo (“operaism”), also known in the English-speaking world as “autonomist Marxism”, refers to a theoretical and political current of Marxist thought that emerged in Italy in the early 1960s. An original reading of Marx in the framework of the radical workers’ struggles that developed in the country during the whole decade led to the invention of new theoretical concepts (such as technical and political class composition, the mass worker, the refusal of work) and of a new political methodology (the so called militant investigation or co-research). The development of operaism deeply influenced in Italy both political culture and political and social movements in the 1960s and 1970s. The theories of Italian revolutionary operaism, which since 1968 shaped political experiences such as “Potere operaio” (“Workers’ Power”) and the multifarious movements of “Autonomia operaia” (“Workers’ Autonomy”), widely circulated also abroad (for instance in Germany, through a magazine like “Autonomie” and the work by Karl Heinz Roth, in France, through magazines like “Matériaux pour l’intervention”, “Camarades” and the work by Yann Moulier Boutang, and in the US, through a magazine like “Zerowork” and the work by Harry Cleaver). After the repression waves that since April 7th 1979 led to the imprisonment of hundreds of militants and intellectuals of the autonomous movement in Italy, forcing many others to go into exile (mainly to France), the early 1990s marked the beginning of a new theoretical and political season and the birth of what is currently referred to as “postoperaism”. Key to this new season have been such concepts as “general intellect”, “immaterial labor”, “cognitive capitalism”, the “autonomy of migration”, and the “multitude”. Hardt and Negri’s Empire (2000) has widely contributed to the global spreading of such concepts within social movements, Marxist and post-Marxist discussions, as well as cultural and postcolonial studies.

1. «A new era in the class struggle is beginning. The workers have imposed it on the capitalists, through the objective violence of their organized strength in the factories. Capital’s power appears to be stable and solid, the balance of forces appears to be weighted against the workers. And yet precisely at the points where capital’s power appears most dominant, we see how deeply it is penetrated by this menace, this threat of the working class». These are the opening sentences of Mario Tronti’s “Lenin in Inghilterra” (“Lenin in England”), written in 1964 as an editorial for the first issue of the newspaper Classe operaia (“Working class”) and republished in 1966 in Operai e capitale (“Workers and Capital”), a book that was bound to become a kind of bible within the first wave of operaist thinking (Tronti 1971: 89). The above quoted article by Tronti is particularly important in the history and formation of operaism: the first sentences clearly indicate one of the main polemical fronts of this current of political thinking, that is the frontal attack against all theories of working class integration, which were widely circulating in the 1960s both in mainstream social sciences, in public discourse and even in some varieties of “Third-Worldist” Marxism. To this polemical front Tronti added in the same article the formulation of a methodological principle (often emphatically referred to as a kind of “Copernican revolution”) that, by all differences, remained crucial to the whole theories of operaism and postoperaism: that is, the idea that it is necessary to reverse the classical relation between capitalistic development and workers’ struggle, to identify in workers’ struggles the real dynamic element (the real “mover”) of capitalistic development and to affirm the latter’s subordination to workers’ struggles.

As a newspaper, Classe operaia (1964-1967) emerged out of a split within the experience of a militant journal, Quaderni rossi (“Red notebooks”), which had been founded in 1961 in Turin by Raniero Panzieri, a prominent intellectual and leftwing leader of the Italian Socialist Party. Critical toward the new party line, which was laying the basis for the following experiences of the so called “center-left” governments in the country, Panzieri gathered a group of young intellectuals, workers and technical employees, starting an investigation on the living and labor conditions of the working class in and around Turin. The journal Quaderni rossi was born out of a connection with similar groups based in other regions of Northern Italy, intellectuals such as Antonio Negri and Mario Tronti (the former linked to the Socialist Party in Padua, the latter to the Communist Party in Rome) and militant researchers such as Romano Alquati and Guido Bianchini. In many senses the work done by Quaderni rossi is to be considered the origin of operaism, although it is also correct to emphasize the split of the group (and the birth of Classe operaia) as the real moment of emergence of a political operaism. Quaderni rossi, while originally maintaining a strong relation with the left of the trade unions, produced a real rupture with the hegemonic political culture of the Italian left of the time, which was deeply shaped by the reading of Gramsci proposed by the intellectuals of the Communist Party in the 1950s and by the political line set by Palmiro Togliatti since the end of the war. Although it can look paradoxical, the rupture produced by Quaderni rossi was twofold, and it basically consisted in a double rediscovery: the rediscovery of Marx (the first Italian translation of a fragment of Marx’ Grundrisse, the famous “Fragment on the machinery”, was published in the 4th issue of Quaderni rossi) and the rediscovery of the factory. After the historical defeat of the left at Fiat in 1953, the factory had been conceived by the official organizations of the labor movement a site of resistance and political formation of cadres, but surely not as a strategic site of offensive workers’ attack: while a “historicist” reading of Marx had been prevailing, the politics of alliances had been recognized as the main task of communist and socialist politics.

Quaderni rossi looked for a way out of the internal and international crisis of the labor movement in the second half of the 1950s through an emphasis on the new quality of class struggle and composition within the new conditions determined by the wave of mass industrialization that had radically transformed Italian social, economic and cultural landscape between the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s. The journal started to produce an accurate cartography of workers’ conditions and struggles, stressing the importance of seemingly “un-political” workers’ behaviors such as absenteeism and small (even individual) gestures of sabotage, and initiated “militant investigations” in many factories, directly involving workers in the production of knowledge on their living and work conditions and experimenting the transformation of this knowledge into a condition for struggle. In a way it is possible to say that Quaderni rossi played a key role in the establishment of industrial and labor sociology in Italy, in a condition in which the predominant historicist culture of the left was basically hostile to sociology as such. Parallel to this, a new reading of Marx (especially of the chapters on the “Working day” and on “Machinery and Modern Industry” of Capital, book 1) started to open up the very category of capital to the acknowledgment of its nature as a social relationship, as the provisional synthesis of a tension (of a struggle) that structurally remains open.

Classe operaia tried to interpret the radicalization of workers’ struggles that became apparent at least since 1962, when a wild uprising in Turin (the so called uprising of Piazza Statuto) brought to the fore the behaviors of the new unskilled and young workers, mainly migrants from the South of the country, whose recruitment had radically transformed the composition of the working class in the factories of the North (and first of all in the Fiat plants in Turin). The newspaper was presented as a “new style of political experiment”: besides intellectuals such as Mario Tronti, Toni Negri and Sergio Bologna, Classe operaia was produced by a wide network of autonomous workers’ groups, based in many factories in the North of the country (with the emerging chemical pole of Porto Marghera, close to Venice, increasingly playing an important role). Crucial to the split with Quaderni rossi was the idea that the Italian situation was rife for political experiments in revolutionary autonomous workers’ organization (“1905 in Italy” was the title of another editorial written by Tronti). But at the same time, Classe operaia was also the theoretical laboratory within which the main categories and the methodology of the first wave of operaism were defined. The concept of “technical class composition” was worked out as a kind of reverse side of what Marx had termed the “organic composition of capital”. To this the concept of a “political class composition” was added, in order to take the subjective behaviors, the needs, the traditions of struggle into account in the definition of class.

While the analysis of the new role assigned to the State by Keynesianism led to the concept of “plan of capital” (that was later developed by Negri in the early 1970s into the concept of “plan-State”), in the most engaged theoretical chapter of his Operai e capitale (“Marx, forza-lavoro, classe operaia”, “Marx, labor power, working class”) Tronti contended that the relation of labor to capital is always double, at once incorporated into its workings as a commodity (as “labor power”) but also separated from its logic as a form of political subjectivity (as “working class”). Drawing on a reading of Marx’ Grundrisse, Tronti (1971: 211) developed the idea of “labor as subjectivity”, labor as set against capital, as not-capital. This idea implied a radical emphasis on the partiality of the subjectivity of the working class. On the one hand, Tronti stressed the fact that only from the unilateral point of view of this partial subject it was possible to produce a knowledge of the “totality” of capitalism. On the other hand, he fully developed the political consequences of this theoretical point, setting the interest (and the “explosive power”) of the working class against such concepts as the “people” and “popular sovereignty” itself, which had been key to the theory of “progressive democracy” of the Communist Party under the leadership of Togliatti (cf. Tronti 1971: 79). The militant investigation on the new technical conditions of labor in the “fordist” factories led the group of Classe operaia to identify the new composition of the working class in the so called mass worker: the lack of identification of the unskilled worker in the “content” of labor, far from being described in terms of “alienation”, was considered by Italian operaists as the root of a refusal of work and of political struggles for wage independently of productivity.

2. The students’ movement of 1968 and the workers’ “hot autumn” of 1969 led to a new split within Italian operaism. Mario Tronti and others decided to continue their political and intellectual activity within the Communist Party, since they were convinced that workers’ struggles structurally needed a political “supplement” in order to multiply and consolidate their power (a position that was later elaborated by Tronti in his theory of the “autonomy of the political”). Antonio Negri and others were instead convinced that the level of autonomous power expressed by workers in the “hot autumn” directly posited the problem of a revolutionary rupture. The organization “Potere operaio” (“Workers’ Power”) was founded upon this political evaluation and was active until 1973. Although the history of the organization was shaped by many contrasts on the “party line” (with positions ranging from an emphasis on workers’ autonomy and violence to a rediscovery of the Leninist politics of insurrection), its newspaper was an important point of reference for the most radical workers’ experiences in Italy.

Both the new dimension of workers’ struggles (that was symbolically represented by the occupation of the Mirafiori Fiat plant in march 1973) and the spread of new social movements since the end of the 1960s led the majority of “Potere operaio” to propose the end of the group’s experience and its confluence into the wider movement of “autonomia operaia” (“workers’ autonomy”). The composition of this movement was radically heterogeneous, both from a political and from a social point of view: although the proposal of “workers’ autonomy” came from some big factories in the North and from workers’ committees in the services in Rome, the movement increasingly registered and expressed the political militancy of new proletarian sectors, especially in the peripheries of the metropolitan areas; the slogans and language of operaism were rearticulated in the new situation and hybridized on the one hand with older political traditions (such as for instance workers’ councils), on the other hand with the new emerging experiences of feminism, environmentalism and counter-culture; the emphasis on organization, “counter-power” and spread of proletarian violence against state and capital that was defining for some components of the movement was met by the emphasis on creativity, micropolitics and the rediscovery of “situationism” that was defining for other components. The uprising of 1977 in Italy (and particularly in Bologna and in Rome) was the culminating moment of the growth of the autonomous movement: in a way it can be retrospectively considered as an embryonic emergence of a new social composition of labor and as the announcement of many of the issues that have been at stake in the development of postoperaism in recent years. 1977 was also a year shaped by a dramatic clash between the autonomous movement and the Communist Party: since that year, in a situation that was increasingly characterized by the military actions of the Red Brigades and other leftist armed organizations, the Communist Party played a key role in the criminalization of the autonomous movement and in the organization of repression against its militants and intellectuals.

From a theoretical point of view, the development of Italian revolutionary operaism in the 1970s was entirely intertwined with the history of political and social struggles briefly sketched above. A first element can be identified in an attempt to reconstruct the international dimension of the cycle of struggles of the mass worker. This attempt led to an intensive study of the history of class struggles in the US, particularly focused on the IWW and on such experiences as “Facing reality” in the 1950s, as well as to an investigation of workers’ struggles in the 1960s and in the early 1970s in Western Europe. Operai e stato (“Workers and state”), a collective book published in 1972 that can be considered an important move in this direction, introduces a second important theoretical element, that is the role and changing shape of the state in capitalism. Particularly important on this point has been the work by Antonio Negri and Luciano Ferrari Bravo: the definition of the “plan state”, which has already been recalled, was worked out on the basis of two essays collected in Operai e Stato, one devoted to Keynes by Negri and one devoted to the New Deal in the US by Ferrari Bravo. In the following years, the struggles of the mass worker were recognized as the crucial element that had produced the crisis of the “plan state”: while politically the operaists within the autonomous movement thought it necessary and possible to deepen the disarticulation of the very form of the state through a mixture of sabotage and social struggles for “indirect wage” (that is, for the increment of the State’s public expense), the analysis of the crisis of the “plan state” led to the proposal of the concept of “crisis state”, which anticipated many debates on the crisis of the welfare state. A third crucial theoretical element in the 1970s was the militant investigation on the incipient forms of capitalistic restructuring as a response to the mass worker’s struggles. At least since 1973 many collective investigations and analysis stressed the fact that capital itself was compelled by the intensity of these struggles to invent new forms of production and new modalities of intertwining between production, circulation and reproduction. Such a concept as “diffused factory” tried to grasp these emerging new capitalistic forms, while the concept of “social worker” was proposed in order to identify the class composition that could politically anticipate capital’s attempt to reaffirm its command on the whole society.

3. What is currently referred to as “postoperaism” began to emerge in the early 1990s. While in Italy a new students’ movement (1990-1991) and the consolidation of the social centers movement opened up new possibilities for radical political action and thinking, two journals were launched that contributed to a critical examination and renewal of the legacy of operaism: the first one, Luogo comune (“Common place”) was started in Rome by Paolo Virno and others, the second one, Futur Antérieure (“Future anterior”), was started in Paris by Antonio Negri, other Italian political expatriates and French intellectuals such as Jean-Marie Vincent. These two journals initiated a debate on “post-fordism” that tried to read “against the grain” many of the characters and the rhetoric itself of the new “flexible” organization of capitalism: in the following years a new reading of Marx’s concept of “general intellect” was proposed, in order to stress the role of knowledge and language in the very composition of labor dominated and exploited by capital; a lively discussion focused on the concept of “immaterial labor”; the emphasis on the mobility of labor led some “postoperaist” theorists to propose a theory of the “autonomy of migration”; the concept of the multitude, originally worked out by Antonio Negri in his reading of Spinoza, was further elaborated both in order to grasp the “technical” heterogeneity of the composition of labor and to propose a form of political organization beyond the tradition of the labor movement.

Since 1999 post-operaist concepts and theories have deeply influenced the discussion within the alter-globalization movement: they have been sharply criticized by some leftist intellectuals and activists, while others have enthusiastically appropriated them. Through the publication of Empire by Hardt & Negri (2000), operaism and postoperaism have become “traveling theories” and part of the global critical discussion within social movements and knowledge production both within and outside the academy.

SEE ALSO: Autonomism, Autonomy of migration and the alter-globalization movement, Italy, from the new left to the great repression (1962-1981), Italy, Social Centers Movement, Marxism, Multitude, Negri, Antonio.

References and suggested readings

Alquati, R. (1975), Sulla Fiat e altri scritti, Milano: Feltrinelli.

Birkner, M. & Foltin, R. (2006), (Post-)Operaismus. Von der Arbeiterautonomie zur Multitude. Geschichte und Gegenwart, Theorie und Praxis. Eine Einführung, Stuttgart: Schmetterling.

Bologna, S. & Rawick, G.P. & Gobbini, M. & Negri, A. & Ferrari Bravo, L. & Gambino, F. (1972), Operai e stato. Lotte operaie e riforme capitalistiche tra Rivoluzione d’Ottobre e New Deal, Milano: Feltrinelli.

Borio, G. & Pozzi, F. & Roggero, L. (Eds.) (2005), Gli operaisti, Roma: DeriveApprodi.

Ferrari Bravo, L. (2001) Dal fordismo alla globalizzazione, Roma: Manifestolibri.

Hardt, M. & Negri, A. (2000), Empire, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hardt, M. & Virno, P. (Eds.) (2006), Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Lothringer, S. & Marazzi, C. (Eds.) (2007), Autonomia: Post-political Politics, Cambridge, MA – London: Semiotext(e).

Milani, F. & Tratta, G. (Eds.) (2008), L’operaismo degli anni Sessanta. Dai «Quaderni rossi» a «Classe operaia», Roma: DeriveApprodi.

Negri, A. (2007), Dall’operaio massa all’operaio sociale. Intervista sull’operaismo, Verona: ombre corte (1st ed. 1979).

Wright, R. (2002), Storming Heaven. Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism, London: Pluto Press.

Tronti, M. (1971), Operai e capitale, Torino: Einaudi (2nd enlarged ed., 1st ed. 1966).

Virno, P. (2004), A Grammar of the Multitude, Cambridge, MA – London: Semiotext(e).

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