Vol 3 No 4 Winter 2020

The Autumn and Fall of Italian Workerism

Across the West, the last four decades have been marked by the large-scale collapse of the labor movement. Not only have trade unions withered but so have, with few exceptions, the social-democratic and communist parties and their roots in working-class life. Neoliberalism has not only created new market structures, reduced welfare provision, and privatized industries, it has also pulverized the social basis of many old working-class institutions. Yet as crisis-struck neoliberalism continues to spark all manner of social revolt, many activists insist that the fall of the mass parties is not such a disaster. Their demise is either celebrated — a liberation from bureaucratic control, opening up space for more radical alternatives — or at least seen as self-inflicted, given these forces’ inertia and conservatism. On this reading, the many failures of parliamentary socialism, from compromises to defeats and hierarchical organizing methods, just go to show that real direct resistance instead comes “in the streets” through strikes, occupations, and riots. These are held to be the site at which working-class people directly express their social power.

This reading can also be allied with a critique of the notion of class that structured the twentieth-century left. Not only have the forms of representation failed, but the subject who was previously represented has exited the stage, or, in any case, has become less central. An enormous body of writing is devoted to the notion that the socialist and communist parties were only interested in white, male, straight, married factory workers whose class identity was rooted in their employment in often polluting and dangerous industries. In many European countries, the decline of organized labor is closely connected to the political defeats of such workers, for instance, the FIAT autoworkers’ strike in Turin in 1980, or, yet more symbolically, Margaret Thatcher’s crushing of the British miners in 1984–85. Such a trend was heralded already in 1978 by British communist historian Eric Hobsbawm, in his The Forward March of Labour Halted? 1 Here, he outlined the declining social weight of workers employed in manual labor, themselves ever more divided along sectional lines. In parallel to this, Greek political scientist Nicos Poulantzas discussed how the rise of white-collar employment was splitting the old battalions of labor.2

A heft of academic studies and activist-oriented literature has discussed this problem of class composition in more recent times, highlighting new types of relations to employment. Guy Standing’s The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class argues that the old proletariat, cohered by stable employment and organizations, today exists in a merely residual form, no longer able to set general political dividing lines.3 He contrasts this to the rise of a precariat — characterized by chronic insecurity and atomization — and what he calls proficians, i.e., contractors, the self-employed, and sole traders.4 The remainder of the historic proletariat is still drawing advantage from its twentieth-century gains, including nonwage benefits like welfare rights and, indeed, pension funds. But its position today is neither revolutionary nor representative of working people in general. For Standing, the mobile and insecure represent a new “dangerous class” struggling for self-consciousness. Other accounts of struggles in the gig economy — or various much-mediatized protests, from Occupy to the Indignados and uprisings in the Arab world, Senegal, and Hong Kong — insist that the subjectivities that emerged in “labor society” have been replaced by new mass actors.5

Such a focus on new forms of action often reflects on the loss of any strategic actor able to give cohesion to the rest. In particular, this means the end of the party-political containers that once sought to bring class consciousness through the factory gates. They are to be swept aside by the less mediated forms of struggle, carried forth by a new and more varied array of actors, themselves a creative “constituent power.” This view of polyphonic insurgencies from below was especially popularized in Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s 2000 book Empire, at the turn of the millennium a kind of bible of the alter-globalization movement. It posited the existence of a multicentered capitalist globalization and, correspondingly, myriad forms of resistance able to throw it into crisis. These latter are a “multitude,” characterized by their lack of any single hegemonic figure or leadership. The multitude6 instead loosely regroups actors with a common condition of existence: their potential to resist the logic of capital. From indigenous peasants under threat of eviction to climate protesters or the “cognitive proletariat,” they are deterritorialized, plural, global — and, for this, all the more powerful.

Negri, a philosophy professor active in the Italian left for six decades, often highlights the novelty of such figures — such as by presenting the 2011 Occupy movement and city square protests in Spain as harbingers of an unprecedented “networked subjectivity,” as radical in its challenge to institutional power as in its anti-austerity message. The idea of the “movement of movements” during the early 2000s alter-globalization protests similarly reflected this notion, and it has in more recent times influenced, to differing degrees, outlets from roar magazine to Novara Media, and even works by former Trotskyists, like Paul Mason in his PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future.7 Exemplary of the influence of these ideas was the C17 (Communism 2017) conference held in Rome upon the centenary of the Russian Revolution, which brought together prominent leftist academics like Negri, French philosophers Étienne Balibar and Jacques Rancière, the feminist scholar Silvia Federici, Jodi Dean, and, via video link, Slavoj Žižek. If the conference and a subsequently produced manifesto invoked the legacy of 1917, the central theme was the separation between communism and the old tryptic of state, party, and labor movement.

All this speaks to the influence and, in some circles, authority of the archipelago of scenes known as postoperaismo, of which Negri is one leading exponent. This trend of ideas, emerging in Italy in the late 1970s, is generally identified with its theoretical emphasis on subjectivity in the post-Fordist era. It is unsurprising that such a current is able to gain a hearing in a context marked by a collapse of many other traditions and assumptions. The question of subjectivity that it poses is, indeed, essential: aside from a few islands of residual workplace power, the political left across the West has been divested of its historic social referents, or even openly turned to liberalism. Even back in 1978, Hobsbawm indicated the decline in the magnetic force of the labor movement, whose loss of social weight is clear every time that some historic red fortress turns Tory blue or Lega Nord green. Yet where Hobsbawm, and, in their own way, Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau, emphasized the need for a new popular front — a broader container to cohere more fragmented demands and identities — postoperaismo resists this, rejecting both the idea of a uniting “people” and the “alienated” mediations of institutional and representative politics.

We will go on to explain how this theoretical outlook developed, historically. For now, we shall note that it is deeply rooted in an apparently quite different ideological predecessor — the so-called operaismo (literally “workerism,” though the translation is inadequate)8 that developed in early 1960s Italy. A theoretical current rather than a political organization, the operaisti instead reflected on the subjectivity of the assembly-line worker at the moment of his first emergence, during Italy’s postwar “economic miracle.” This current first took form with a group of young sociologists around Mario Tronti and his then-ally Negri, each of whom were editors of Raniero Panzieri’s journal Quaderni Rossi (“Red Notebooks”) before they launched their own review, Classe Operaia (“Working Class”), in 1964. Their project centered on studying the new shape of the Italian working class, a research effort that sought to reject the managerial-disciplining aims of industrial sociology and instead help a rising class subject to recognize its own disruptive power. As the shop-floor revolt mounted, outside of or even in opposition to the established Communist Party, operaismo seemed to have hit on something.

Central to operaismo, in its first incarnation, was its insistence that workers’ strategic power lay in their ability to shut down production — the power of sabotage and refusal on the shop floor — and decidedly not in democratic institutions or building broad “popular” alliances. In this view, what Tronti called a “rough pagan race”9 — the southern migrant workers being drawn into factory employment — was not a class in pursuit of inclusion in or decision-making power over capitalist development, but rather an explosive, destabilizing force brought into the heart of capital. The factory alone was the site of conflict, which then imposed its relations on all society. The theoretical basis of this current was notably expounded in Tronti’s 1966 work Operai e capitale, recently released in English translation by Verso as Workers and Capital. Tronti insisted that those at the high points of industrial development and concentration — namely assembly-line workers, with their mass of numbers on the shop floor — were the necessarily decisive force in the class struggle as a whole. This was a caricatural focus on one type of workplace and political action — apparently rather at odds with what Negri et al. claim today.

Yet behind the different conclusions that various exponents of operaismo and postoperaismo have arrived at since the 1960s, they share philosophical underpinnings that have resurfaced in contemporary discussions of class subjectivity. At its most rhetorical-propagandistic level, a celebration of new actors is combined with a focus on the creative power of struggle, whose own “constituent” force from below is contrasted with ossified and conservative labor movement apparatuses and attempts to change institutions from within. As postoperaista Franco “Bifo” Berardi emphasizes, Workers and Capital was a major shift in Italian Marxism because it placed decisive stress on the dimension of subjectivity — dovetailing with simultaneous developments like Michel Foucault’s studies on disciplinary society.10 In this reading, there was no need to lament the fragmentation of former class subjects, for capitalism would invariably produce new contradictions — immanently revolutionary ones. Confident that bureaucratic forms of organization and the reformist popular fronts of the PCI (Italian Communist Party) were about to be swept away, Tronti polemically declared in 1964 that the shop-floor revolt shaking Italy was making “more revolutionary history than all the revolutions of all the colonised people put together.”11

Needless to say, such a judgment was rather exaggerated, notwithstanding the enormous power of the strike wave peaking in 1969 with the so-called Hot Autumn. In fact, by 1968, Tronti had effectively dropped out of political activity, adopting a subdued role as a PCI member; by 1973, Negri and his comrades had turned their backs on “factoryism” in favor of a search for other signs of upheaval. Informing some of the extra-parliamentary left of this period, operaismo was more a form of theorizing these struggles than an organized force unto itself. Yet its mythical status as the idea behind the struggles of the 1960s, and indeed the challenge to the Communist Party, has granted it a lasting historiographical centrality. For instance, Michele Filippini argues that despite operaismo’s “political defeats,” it could claim a series of “theoretical victories” — “a cache which may be drawn upon in the contemporary global context of social and political struggle.”12 This may sound like a rather miserly consolation, given the revolutionary promise of the time. But even when we look back to its heroic phase, we find that its approach instead offers many warnings, relevant still today.

The First Workerism

My aim here is not to examine the full and vast theoretical corpus of operaismo and its offshoots, but rather to examine how it developed as a political force. In particular, it was built on a critique of the vision of class politics upheld by the communist (PCI) and socialist (PSI) parties that had emerged from World War II. The especially formidable opponent was the PCI, a mass party based on the political tradition of Palmiro Togliatti and, through him, Antonio Gramsci. Crushed under Fascism, Togliatti’s PCI had been the largest organized part of the anti-Nazi Resistance and, from September 1943, played a central role in the National Liberation Committee (CLN) also embracing the PSI, the Christian Democrats (DC), the short-lived Action Party, and small liberal forces.13 The PCI built an unprecedented base in the Northern factories through a series of demonstrative strikes, guaranteeing it a seat at the table in a pact with non-proletarian parties. In April 1944, it entered government for the first time as these parties joined the administration of Allied-liberated Italy, headed by former fascist general Pietro Badoglio, which opposed Benito Mussolini’s loyalist regime in the German-occupied areas.

The PCI’s integration into national politics — in government together with the DC and PSI until May 1947 — was an extraordinary reversal in its fortunes, in a land that had seen only ten years of male universal suffrage prior to the consolidation of Fascism. Created in 1921 as an attempt to bring Bolshevik experience to Italy, the party’s membership never surpassed the tens of thousands before its crushing in 1926. Both the party’s insurrectionary immediatism and the intense repression heralded by the advent of Fascism had condemned these Italian Bolsheviks to rapid isolation. In the aftermath of October 1917, the most politicized elements of the Italian workers’ movement certainly were inspired by the Leninist example — Antonio Gramsci even wrote of the “Revolution Against ‘Capital,’” referring to the refutation of Marxian historical stages by the bold gamble the Bolsheviks had made in backward Russia. Yet the subsequent history of the Italian workers’ movement, from the factory occupations of 1919–20 to defeat at the hands of Fascism, instead strongly indicated the need for allies, deeper-rooted organization, and institutions that could mold the collective intellect.

This was the basic motivation not only for Gramsci’s prison writings, but also for Togliatti’s presentation of a Gramscian tradition, notably in his 1948 abridged edition of the Prison Notebooks. Strongly colored by the “patriotic” antifascism that reigned in the Stalin-era Comintern, the PCI sought to unite a small industrial proletariat with wider layers of the population, from peasants to intellectuals, artisans, and small shopkeepers. It posited not only a common national interest — defeating German occupation, then postwar reconstruction — but also the need for a working-class-led alliance to solve the great unanswered problems of national life. It promised to lead a broad bloc in resolving the historical problems of the Italian state, from the backwardness of the state machine to the economic underdevelopment of the South and the masses’ historic exclusion from political life. In contrast to the elite politics of even pre-Fascist, liberal Italy, the PCI’s democratic-centralist structures mobilized millions in a highly centralized and disciplined form of activity. It sought to transcend Italy’s tradition of sovversivismo, namely the kind of antagonistic social revolt expressed in riots or even banditry,14 with an effort to bring the masses into the Republic.

The PCI thus rejected any purely insurrectionary path to socialism. Far-left critiques of the PCI’s role in the Resistance thus often accuse it of “refusing” to seize power or acting as a counterrevolutionary brake on proletarian insurgency. This critique was also voiced by dissident forces at the time, for instance, the Bandiera Rossa movement, Rome’s largest single Resistance force. Its strongholds lay in the borgate slums, populated by artisans, the underemployed, and draft resisters, who could easily swing between maximalist insurrectionism and passive resignation. Yet while such movements crumbled rapidly after 1945, failing to create any lasting political organization of their own, the PCI set off on its work of sinking deeper social roots. Indeed, even the PCI was much weaker among the general population than within the mobilized partisan forces; if perhaps 60 percent of all Resistance militants fought in Communist-led units, the party’s score in the June 1946 Constituent Assembly election was a disappointing 19 percent; that same day, Italians voted to abolish the monarchy long complicit in Fascism, but only by 54 percent to 46.

The PCI nonetheless soon established itself as the main democratic representation of the Italian working class. Indeed, its leaders played an important institutional role in the immediate aftermath of World War II, including as coauthors of the new constitution. Aside from its totemic Article 1, which begins by terming Italy “a democratic Republic founded on labor,” this document featured all manner of rhetorical ambitions. Even beyond its assertion of the values of “political, economic and social solidarity,” its Article 3 insisted on the removal of “those obstacles of an economic or social nature which constrain the freedom and equality of citizens, thereby impeding the full development of the human person and the effective participation of all workers in the political, economic and social organization of the country.” Yet for all the bold promises, the antifascist alliance that wrote these words soon fractured. In April 1947, DC premier Alcide De Gasperi visited Washington to negotiate Marshall Plan aid dollars, and, returning the following month, he kicked both the PCI and the Socialist PSI out of his government.

Togliatti’s leadership, which ended only with his death in December 1964, was a continual bid to reassert the PCI’s role within the Italian state. In the Resistance period, it had established itself as a mass force, but also one that accepted democratic institutions. Given its role in the postwar Constituent Assembly, it could boast of the “partisans’ Constitution” and the “Republic born of the Resistance,” whose promise remained to be fulfilled. But to this end, it had swallowed the constitutionalization of the Lateran Pacts, entrenching the Catholic Church’s semi-established status as stipulated by Mussolini; as justice minister, Togliatti also authored an amnesty for wartime crimes in the name of social peace. Yet with the Cold-Warrior Christian Democrats (DC) in power alone from 1947, the PCI faced a rearguard battle to defend its democratic legitimacy. As well as seeking to avoid the fate of its counterparts in Greece — crushed by domestic monarchists allied to the British — the PCI faced a battle even to defend the most basic constitutional rights, for instance, in the face of the mafioso violence unleashed against farmworker organizing in the South.

Among the Anglophone left — where the PCI’s defenders are less visible than autonomists — the party is often imagined to be a repressive force that silenced workers. So it’s worth remembering the atmosphere of repression the PCI itself faced. Most famous was the CIA funding for right-wing electoral causes, combined with vicious anticommunist propaganda; DC campaigns damned “baby-eating Communists,” while the Church excommunicated the party and its supporters. This offensive was not limited to nasty words. Just days after the PCI-PSI bloc defeated the DC in the 1947 Sicilian regional elections, the May Day march in Portella della Ginestra was broken up by an armed gang hired by local business chiefs — and eleven people were murdered. In 1950, when the PCI-led CGIL union called a strike against mass layoffs at Modena’s Fonderie Riunite, the police opened fire on the workers, killing six. A 1960 bid to form a government reliant on neofascist parliamentary support illustrated how much anticommunism rather than antifascism governed the early phases of the Cold War republic; the repression of the protests spreading from Genoa to Reggio Emilia saw an additional eleven people killed.

Comparable to earlier experiences, like Germany’s pre–World War I Social Democratic Party, the PCI thus bore the contradiction of being both an “island” of organization in a country with a dominant Catholic-conservative political culture, and a force that sought to preserve its directly institutional legitimacy. Indicative was a July 1948 assassination attempt on general secretary Togliatti — or, rather, the party’s response to it. The anticommunist terror attack prompted immediate mobilization, with armed ex-partisans taking to the streets. The PCI-led CGIL called a general strike, but party leaders had no intention of escalating the situation: a frontal clash with the state would be futile, and the strike instead served as a show of strength. Milan leader Agostino Novella’s report in the following month’s activist newsletter played down its military aspect,15 emphasizing that “where the police maintained a correct attitude, there were no clashes and no notable incidents of concern”; a similar report on Turin described how “a quite large group of workers, in part ex-partisans,” “bitterly opposed the call to go back to work, with clashes of some note.” Togliatti survived, but thirty other activists were killed by the state.

This repressive atmosphere, the low level of strike activity — and the lack of prospect of an exchange of government — forced the PCI into a consistently defensive position, trying to carve out a space to organize. It was, indeed, far from clear that its “Italian Road to Socialism” had any chance of making its end point. Yet given the Cold War context, the party’s achievements were doubtless impressive, as it worked to build autonomous popular institutions providing everything from consumer cooperatives to literacy classes. With more than two million members by the end of the 1940s, most of whom had probably not directly participated in the Resistance or associated collective mobilizations, the PCI was, in this period, an awesome vehicle for working-class politicization. This had, indeed, marked the party right from the start, and was visible even in its most prominent leaders. Giuseppe Di Vittorio, general secretary of the CGIL union, had begun full-time work as a farm laborer at age ten; Pietro Secchia abandoned school at age thirteen to work in a tannery but ultimately become editor of the PCI’s daily, L’Unità (as did Celeste Negarville, a son of poor peasants); of less humble origins, even Togliatti’s father had only been a small-town clerk.

Yet all of this activity was also framed by an essentially gradualist perspective, not unlike the pre–World War I German Social Democrats. There was a Marxist underpinning for everything, and, indeed, the aspiration to create a socialist society, yet the day-to-day practice of the party centered on a slow building of working-class strength, in essence through the expansion of the PCI and its direct provision of services. The connection between this present-day activity and the “great day” of the future was rarely explored in depth: this helped leave space for sporadic insurrectionary impulses like those vaunted by some militants in 1948 in response to the assassination attempt against Togliatti. If not organized dissident currents, these were at least “souls” of the PCI base that pointed in a different direction to its real practice; they bore a crude Leninism drawn from the imaginary of “doing like in Russia” and provoking a sudden and total overhaul of capitalism. Such ideas would die hard, helping the party to maintain a specifically “communist” identity long after its incorporation into the republican mainstream.

The Italian Miracle

The consolidation of Christian-Democratic and Church power did not, however, mean that Italian society was stagnant — the growth levels of the 1950s, rivaling countries like West Germany and Japan, brought an “economic miracle,” turning Italy into a modern industrialized economy. This had the effect of drawing millions of Southern migrants to the factories of the North — it is estimated that between 1955 and 1971, some nine million Italians moved between regions, from a population of around fifty million. These Southerners, from regions where the Resistance had not or had barely taken place, were relatively less socialized in the PCI tradition than skilled Northern workers, also due to the historic weakness of industry in their own home regions. In the 1950s, this was widely credited with the depression of labor militancy, as assembly-line production broke the power of skilled laborism even in historic centers of union strength. Marco Revelli cites a 1955 company report in which FIAT bosses “could declare the conflictual element within FIAT denitively defeated, those arriving the ‘destroyers’, and the situation in the factory pacified.” 16

The Christian-Democratic order that had emerged from the war was not all-dominant, and after losing 8 percent of its support in the 1953 general election, the DC was forced to seek parliamentary allies. After a failed bid to change the electoral law, then a series of short-lived centrist pacts, in March and April 1960, DC man Fernando Tambroni became prime minister of a government reliant on the external support of the neofascist MSI. This created an intense climate of polarization that initially looked bleak for the Communists. On May 21, a public meeting in Bologna by PCI man Giancarlo Pajetta was broken up by police. Just days later, when the MSI announced plans to hold its congress in antifascist Genoa, the PCI’s L’Unità began a campaign for its cancellation. This was followed by a series of demonstrations and a one-day general strike on June 30, called by the unions’ Camera del Lavoro, which ended in sharp clashes with police. On July 6, when PCI MPs led a march to lay wreaths at a plaque to the Resistance at Rome’s Porta San Paolo,17 they were charged by mounted police. The national head of the partisans’ association ANPI had his home burned down by fascists; local PCI offices were also targeted.

This, however, marked a turning point in postwar Italian history, for it served to galvanize the forces of social revolt. Indeed, the scale of the mobilization helped drive a rupture in Christian-Democratic ranks — not only was the Genoa MSI congress called off, but, at the end of July, the Tambroni government was forced to resign. DC grandees were unwilling to accept the mounting social tension augured by an even partial embrace of the MSI; thus, for the first time since 1945, the workers’ movement was able to bring down an unpopular government. This struggle took place on the PCI’s traditional ground of antifascism — yet it had also spread to parts of Italy where the Resistance had not taken root, or, in the case of Genoa, it involved southern migrant workers not socialized in the PCI’s political culture. This upsurge in social struggle did not straightforwardly mark the victory of antifascism over the anticommunism of the 1950s — the Church hierarchy continued to excommunicate the Communists. But it did catalyze a wider recovery in labor movement activity, based on shop-floor militancy rather than the steady rise of the PCI.

This “qualitative leap in workers’ struggles in Italy”18 was heralded in the first issue of Quaderni Rossi, a journal that appeared for the first time in September 1961 and soon became a focus of attention among the cadres of the labor movement.19 The review attributed this leap to a strike that had broken out at Alfa Romeo in spring 1960, but it also highlighted such cases as an all-out strike called by workers across twenty-five cement plants, against the advice of the builders’ unions. In the air, here, was a new sense of the potential power of the shop floor. As writer Vittorio Foa insisted, the workers’ recourse to an “extreme form of struggle” did not owe so much to disagreement with the wage demands put forward by the unions (to the order of 9,000 lire a year less than the workers’ own, i.e., less than €10 a month in today’s money). Rather, their revolt expressed “something that may seem confused and opaque, but is instead crystal clear: to finally be someone and not a passive object of the bosses’ openness, to feel themselves as a class, to conquer some power — even if a generic one — faced with the boss and his system of power.”20

This sense of a new and disruptive subjectivity was a rising impulse in both the main workers’ parties of this period, but it was directed against their recent practice. In the PCI, the events of 1956 — Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalinism, followed by the Red Army invasion of Hungary — had sparked dissent among many intellectuals, undermining the unity and idealism of the communist movement, as did the mounting Chinese-Soviet split. This did not imply that dissent was limited to the Maoism that colored other parts of the New Left. Importantly for the future development of operaismo, there was also a libertarian wing of the Socialists that criticized the party’s failure to confront the PCI’s Stalinism, as well as the institutional practice of the PSI itself. These critiques gained ground around 1959 as leading figure Pietro Nenni turned toward an embrace with the Catholic center, a call for a “center-left” (DC plus PSI) government that was formally advanced at the party’s congress in March 1961. The following year, the PSI abstained in a confidence vote rather than strike down the DC government, and by the end of 1963, it had joined the cabinet.

Several figures behind Quaderni Rossi came from the Socialist tradition. Particularly important was its founder Raniero Panzieri, who had been the author of studies on workers’ control for PSI journal Mondoperaio before he was removed in 1959 as the party pitched toward a center-left coalition. PSI members in Quaderni Rossi included the essayist Franco Fortini and Antonio Negri, a professor at Padua University who brought a group of dissident Socialists from the Veneto region. Yet the group behind the review, largely made up of young sociologists, also included nonparty researchers, notably Romano Alquati and Alberto Asor Rosa, and PCI man Mario Tronti, each thirsting for direct engagement with the new class subject. The journal was not the expression of a distinct political force or party current: Tronti would never leave the PCI, Negri only left the PSI in 1963, and this period also saw the rise of the left-Socialist Mondo Nuovo, launched in 1959, and the Quaderni Piacentini, launched in 1962, including some of the same contributors. But even more than other New Left journals of this moment, Quaderni Rossi was centrally focused on the research of shop-floor experience, new episodes of struggle, and their role in the reconfiguration of a modern Italian capitalism.

This development of shop-floor struggles would lead these researchers to sharper critiques of the established workers’ parties and the class alliances on which they were based. But they, too, were blown around by the course of the struggle. Epitomizing this was the excitement generated by the Turin FIAT strike of 1962 — an end to years of seeming passivity at a workplace of national symbolic importance. With the metalworkers’ contract up for renewal, the CGIL called a two-day strike to put pressure on management. Yet rather than simply turn out for the union demonstrations, the largely migrant workforce mounted a kind of jacquerie,21 with three days of protests in the city’s Piazza Statuto resulting in pitched battles with the police. This large-scale rioting involved thousands of people: the UIL union, which signed a separate agreement with bosses, saw its offices besieged. Hundreds were arrested and eighty-eight workers fired. Faced with this escalation, the PCI’s L’Unità was the only national paper not to focus on the violent episodes involved in the strike — indeed, when the government accused it of being at the center of events, it sought to disown the violence.22 L’Unità reported the events in pacific terms, in the form of a worker addressing a carabiniere captain at a picket at the RIV ball bearings factory:

‘You [police] agents have to understand’, said the worker, ‘that this strike will succeed’ … ‘To whoever wants to enter the factory we say this alone, and we have the right to say it’ … The old worker knew the whole Constitution by heart and quoted from it ever louder. Meanwhile outside the Mirafiori [FIAT plant] we found a different, festive atmosphere.23

The PCI paper thus narrated a conceit in which the workers had stood their ground and been respected by the police, with only a few “provocateurs” causing trouble. The problem it faced was that it stood culturally distant from this kind of clash, which had begun during a CGIL-called strike yet rapidly assumed wholly different dimensions. This at first disoriented the Quaderni Rossi group, which, like the PCI, put the confrontations down to “provocations.” Indeed, though it is easy to paint the PCI as a conservative brake on the workers, and it did not embrace the actual forms the struggle took, it did provide legal support for those hauled before the courts. This was precisely what Quaderni Rossi criticized here as in many workplaces, as it painted the PCI as a well-organized force that limited itself to strictly “party” activity, building up its own base of membership. Typical in this sense was L’Unità’s framing of Piazza Statuto in terms of democratic-institutional concerns — e.g., emphasizing the worker who tells the policeman of the spirit of the Constitution — rather than the energy and conflictuality of the strike and protests themselves.

The PCI’s inflexibility was, in part, a reflection of the social layers on which it had classically built its base of cadres — skilled workers, veterans of the struggles of the Resistance period. Yet it was also governed by its effort to build ties with the other republican parties — in essence, an attempt to build a social-democratic government that would modernize backward Italy. The growing tensions around this project were illustrated by a debate within the leadership, which came out into the open in a seminar at Rome’s Gramsci Institute in 1962. The PCI’s main right-wing leader, Giorgio Amendola, insisted that a multi-class government (or even a new party, merged with the PSI) was necessary in order to drive what he called “democratic programming” — not a planned economy, but something more like Gaullist dirigisme. Conversely, the Left’s leader, Pietro Ingrao, sought a greater focus on material improvements for workers — in particular, the salary demands raised by the new strike movements. The result was a vehement clash, with Ingrao accused of heresy and ultra-leftism. The PCI was plural in its orientation to other parties but not very receptive to the recent social changes — or the impulses coming from below.

This clash between the organizational heritage of the labor movement and the new impulses of the 1960s provided the historical basis for the current known as operaismo. Seeking a “return to Marx” that could give the working class back its own “science,” Tronti insisted that the shop floor was undergoing changes like those seen in the New Deal–era United States — and the PCI hadn’t reacted. Quaderni Rossi’s concern was to research the internal composition of the new working class, seen as the necessary basis for its own consciousness of its strategic power. Where Panzieri remained at the level of research, Tronti and Negri instead called for a more Leninist political intervention, to “bring the party” — it was not yet clear which — “into the factory.” This soon led to a split in the Quaderni Rossi group, and in January 1964, Tronti formed a new journal called Classe Operaia with Romano Alquati, Alberto Asor Rosa, Antonio Negri, and Rita Di Leo. This was the birth of operaismo proper. As Tronti’s most famously titled essay, on the first page of the first issue, put it, the objective was “Lenin in England.” In this perspective, the next revolutionary break would take place not in the weakest link, as in Russia, but at the highest point of capitalist development (i.e., “England”), the assembly lines of Northern Italy.

In this sense, Tronti’s operaismo also mounted a theoretical innovation — a so-called Copernican Revolution. He held that the agent of capitalist modernization was not capital itself, but rather the working class, whose struggles forced capital into a series of new mediations. This extrapolated from recent events a poetic, if rather fantastical, vision of working-class protagonism in history, ever on the brink of revolutionary victory. Capitalist innovation — and even the formation of the DC-PSI government — here represented a reactive response to the power of the shop floor.24 For Tronti, in the absence of outright revolution, workers’ demands would surely be used by capital as a spur to its own development, much as it would use the organizations created by workers as bureaucratic mediations of its own social power. In this sense, it was possible to fear that capital’s “reformist operation” would come to integrate the PCI as well as the PSI. At the same time, Tronti highlighted forms of working-class subjectivity that clashed with the PCI’s own veneration of labor. He emphasized workers’ “refusal of work” — the subjectivity that sought to cast off the discipline of the assembly line, whether by absenteeism or sabotage.

This anti-work politics achieved particular expression in the enthusiasm surrounding the “Fragment on Machines” from Karl Marx’s Grundrisse, of which Classe Operaia provided the first Italian translation. As against the PCI’s celebration of industrial labor as the symbolic heart of the nation, and thus a source of pride and identity, Tronti and his fellow operaisti championed proletarians’ revolt against the stultifying assembly-line regime.25 The “Fragment on Machines” placed this in a grand historical narration, whereby automation, seen as a response to working-class revolt, would render labor-time worthless as a measure of value. As Marx had written, “Once adopted into the production process of capital, the means of labor passes through different metamorphoses, whose culmination is the … automatic system of machinery … As soon as labor in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labor time ceases and must cease to be its measure. Capitalism thus works towards its own dissolution as the form dominating production.”26 Through its revolts, the working class would destroy value — and thus its own condition.

The Extra-Parliamentary Left

This opened up a division between two different sensibilities in operaismo, conditioned by the difficulties in turning an essentially theoretical project (a magazine run largely by a small group of academics) into a political intervention. Celebrating shop-floor subjectivity as the motor of all history, the operaista current was not itself the force “behind” strike movements — the figures most centrally involved largely lacked direct and personal experience of the labor movement. The contention between the operaisti and PCI cadres thus often looked like a conflict between, on the one hand, a group of professional intellectuals who emphasized the centrality of new working-class subjectivities and, on the other, activists who had enjoyed a social ascent thanks to their party membership and cadre formation, and thus fulfilled the PCI’s idea of the “masses entering republican life,” but who were not protagonists in these latest shop-floor struggles. From the operaista standpoint, these latter were seen as a potential force for the stabilization of capital, mediating labor’s demands while diluting them in a broader “national-popular” alliance.

Classe Operaia claimed specific theoretical grounds to consider Italy the likely center of European revolution: namely, the understanding that the shop-floor movements that had begun in 1959–60 would allow a mass militancy to take form in the very moment that Italy developed a modern capitalism. This offered its working class a political “maturity without stabilization,”27 since the overturning of relations in the factory would be able to spread across society, with no intermediate social-democratic moment. Paradoxical, though, was the relation between such an analytical observation and the reality of an economic-political split, integrated into Tronti’s narrative. Here, the danger to the shop-floor movement was the development of a social-democratic force able to include the PCI, as advocated by Amendola, that would “stabilize” Italian capitalism. The class thus had to block capital’s “reformist operation” from integrating the PCI — and thus thwart the party’s full “social democratization.” Curiously, however, as shop-floor mobilization waned in 1964, this line of argument brought Tronti to the conclusion that the political terrain of class struggle lay in working-class pressure to turn the PCI into a battering ram against capital.28

Over the rest of the 1960s, Tronti moved toward a sharp revision of operaismo’s basic theoretical postulates, by introducing the concept of the “autonomy of the political.” Here, he insisted that not only did the struggle in the factory shape the general social relations, but the relations within political organizations and the state would, in turn, intervene in the factory struggle. Such an innovation rather brings to mind the Italian expression “the discovery of hot water”; it was hardly much of a breakthrough to suggest that working-class power would rely on its presence within democratic politics, and the general class relations in the whole society, rather than fan out from shop-floor militancy alone. This shift soon led Tronti and his comrades to advocate an Italian “NEP” (New Economic Policy), what Cristina Corradi describes as “a management of the capitalist economy under working-class political guidance such as would use the state machine to overcome the backwardness of Italian society, promote the reform of the state and set growth going again.”29 This was a classic affirmation of Togliatti’s project, filtered through operaista language.

Yet, for others, the assertion of worker subjectivity against the labor movement and the state had a life of its own, with the overall composition of the class pushed into the background, in favor of a sole focus on its most militant vanguard. This was particularly the case with Negri, who was from a young age a member of Catholic Action and then the PSI. He pursued a harsh antagonism toward the PCI, as he would through the later developments of autonomia and postoperaismo. In 1967, he and some of his allies split away from Tronti to form Potere Operaio (PotOp), a Leninist group that upheld the factory revolt as evidence of an immanent revolutionary process blocked by the PCI. PotOp soon became a leading force on the post-1968 extra-parliamentary left alongside Adriano Sofri’s Lotta Continua, and Avanguardia Operaia, more influenced by Maoism and Third Worldism. PotOp’s main polemical target was the “immobilism” produced by the PCI/trade-unionist mediation of workers’ will to struggle in the factories. It instead promoted unmediated forms of organization like base committees and assemblies of workers.

The emergence of these organizations can be seen as a more powerful expression of the resurgence of the Leninist far left on the other side of the Alps in the period of May 1968. In Italy, 1968 itself was much weaker as an expression of libertarian revolt. But as in France — home of the West’s other big communist party — the Italian left faced a blocked institutional situation, with no exchange of power between a middle-class party and a labor-movement party, thus highlighting the weaknesses of communist gradualism. Fanned by the breakthroughs for those parties in the Third World that broke from the Soviet logic of peaceful coexistence with the West (notably in Cuba and Vietnam), the idea of a Leninist revolution had renewed luster, leaping over the contradictions that constrained the PCI in opposition. This was allied to a wider sense of newfound subjectivities. The strike movements driven mostly by young migrant workers were rejuvenating the labor movement; the PCI, in contrast, was a vast and bureaucratic force whose antifascist rhetoric appeared as ritualized patriotism rather than an urgent call to arms.

The flowering extra-parliamentary left thus aimed to overcome the political and cultural legacy of the PCI, mobilizing both social history and the struggles of the present. A typical if rather belated example, in the mid-1970s, was Primo Maggio, whose historians used oral testimony as a means of telling a history passed over by the “congress” history of parties. Others inspired by operaismo also issued “programmatic” works of fiction. Such was the case of PotOp member Nanni Balestrini’s 1971 novel Vogliamo Tutto (“We Want Everything”), in which the protagonist, an assembly-line worker disdainful of politics and trade unions, becomes drawn into intense struggles against factory management and the unions alike. Notable, here, is the representation of politicization, built into the book’s two-part structure: an individual experience of alienation that leads to identification with the extra-parliamentary left. This latter’s language is then adopted wholesale in a second part written in didactic terms, and indeed in direct counterposition to the PCI — “we must fight so there is no more work … we must fight against the state built on labor.”

Such a spirit was embodied by the extra-parliamentary left, which amounted to some tens of thousands of militants in this period, outside the ranks of the two-million-strong PCI. Its growth was impressive in a country where other kinds of dissident Marxism such as Trotskyism were weakly rooted, and left communism limited to tiny numbers. This desire for new forms of organization owed in part to the lack of renewal in the PCI, dominated by cadres trained in the Resistance period or earlier. As Gian Mario Cazzaniga has highlighted, while many leading figures had been trained in the years of antifascism, prison, exile, and the hard battles of the immediate postwar years, the party’s mass scale — and from 1970, control of regional governments — allowed it to become a vehicle for careerism, even for those from non-proletarian backgrounds. Yet if it is easy to characterize the party as shut off to the 1968 movement, in reality, leaders such as Pietro Ingrao did push for engagement with student protesters, and in some towns, the party took the lead of university occupations;30 as Tronti put it, in fact, the PCI was far more willing to listen to the students of 1968 than the workers of 1969, year of the “Hot Autumn” strike wave.31

New Left intellectuals also explored the deeper roots of PCI conservatism. This particularly centered on its “productivism,” as expressed by its identification with the “republic founded on labor” and lionization of workers who had occupied the factories in 1944–45 in order to save them from German depredations. Classe Operaia cofounder Romolo Gobbi insisted the real class struggle was not the defense of industry or still less the patriotic Resistance, but the absenteeism of those who quit the factories; in his polemical view, the PCI had built a “myth of the Resistance” in order to displace this record of anti-work revolt.32 Equally, writers like Lotta Continua’s Adriano Sofri highlighted the limitations of the assumptions of class power that had emerged from the post–World War I era. He argued that the kind of skilled workers who had once been at the heart of workers’ councils — craftsmen who mastered the whole work process and thus represented a class able to take charge of production — were historically obsolete. In this reading, the assembly-line workers in strikes like the “Hot Autumn” sought not to take command of production, but to stop it through their power of refusal.

While these groups maintained a subjective orientation to the workplace, they were often themselves unreceptive to other new demands that arose in this period, in particular from feminists. Relatively marginal even in Italy’s 1968, at the turn of the 1970s, socialist feminism became a more distinct current, emphasizing the role of unwaged women’s labor in reproducing the factory working class and, thus, the overall reproduction of the capitalist economy. Efforts to channel this political impulse through the lenses of operaismo, however, exposed the limitations of its theoretical focus on the centrality of high points of capitalist innovation.33 Here, the strategic power of women in revolt against unpaid labor was implicitly mediated by that of factory workers, to which it was logically subordinate; this led to an interminable debate on the limits of what really constituted “value-productive” labor. This strikingly illustrated the poverty of readings that reduce working-class agency and experience to its power to cause disruption at the point of production, rather than starting from the whole organization of society. Faced with the indifference of PotOp and Lotta Continua, feminist currents split away from the “old operaismo” — refusing to wait till the battle was won in the factory.

Out of the Factories!

With less than five thousand members, a force like PotOp was hardly an organizational rival to the PCI, a party whose membership stood close to two million. Yet it also had major contradictions of its own, aptly highlighted by one of its former leaders, Sergio Bologna, in his review of Steve Wright’s history of operaismo.34 He essentially portrays PotOp as a theoretical milieu that saw itself as “in service” of the working class, rather than an organization of workers per se; large by the standards of the Western anti-Stalinist far left, but far from a mass party. The ideas that first caught light among sociologists in Panzieri’s Quaderni Rossi group, bringing research into the factories and making workers co-participants, were echoed in the connections established at the end of the 1960s, where largely student and youth-based activist circles built bonds of solidarity and exchange with the workers stirred into action. Yet the fact that PotOp oriented to the shop floor on recently conceived theoretical grounds, rather than because of its militants’ own collective experience, bore a contradiction. If the assembly-line struggles died down, on what basis should the organization remain centered in these same locations — focusing its efforts on these particular workers?

This was precisely the problem that reared its head around 1970, when the shop-floor militancy began to wane. Belatedly swinging behind wage demands, the PCI regained its hold over factory committees; the temporary assemblies formed by the extra-parliamentary left failed to outlast the spike of militancy. Indeed, the dying down of the movement left PotOp disoriented. The terrorist attack carried out by fascists at Milan’s Piazza Fontana in December 1969 moreover marked an incipient radicalization of street violence, to become a dominant theme of the next decade. PotOp’s search for high points of struggle — as it saw it, to be guided by the real movement of the class — meant that its militants veered erratically in search for signs of militancy and thus the political hope that would sustain an eschatology of revolution. This took them far beyond their Venetian and Roman hubs of activity. In Bologna’s account, “The group of militants, now marginalised from factory struggles, wandered directionless, searching for new points of reference (the struggles of Afro-American Blacks, or of the Southern Italian unemployed). Failing to find them they accentuated the voluntarist and late-Leninist character of their militant actions.”35 Even in 1972, Sofri denounced the “madness” of their voluntarism.36

While operaismo had, from the outset, focused on the most advanced points of factory organization — also causing it problems with such movements as Lotta Femminista — after 1970, both PotOp and Lotta Continua began to shift away from “factoryism,” downgraded to a “hegemonic” and then only peripheral site of militancy. As one PotOp contributor put it in 1972, “a series of simplifications once useful for us, like the ‘mass worker’, no longer serve. We need something that is both more and less than this. We need a figure of a proletariat which experiences the crisis, the repressive cyclical nature of production as much as prices and inflation, and on the other hand we need the figure of a proletariat which suffers exploitation throughout the entire day.”37 As Negri later put it, this was a turn from the shop floor to the operaio sociale — the worker in society as a whole. Yet what this did not mean was a turn to reflect on the general conditions and consciousness of the Italian working class, or the bases of its political unity. Rather, this marked a search for some new subject of revolutionary activity — regardless of their representative character.

The operaista critique had come full circle. Where once Tronti had deduced the actuality of the revolution from the evidence of shop-floor militancy, the decline of this struggle was taken by PotOp not as a disproval of the theory, but as an indication that the hub of the inevitable revolution had moved somewhere else. What remained, especially in Negri, was a sharp polemical hostility to the PCI, hysterically cast as the main barrier to the revolution in Italy. The rise in the neofascist street presence moreover provided the grounds for PotOp to form internal structures for clandestine “dirty work,” a tendency that radicalized over the 1970s as militants from across the extra-parliamentary milieu began to turn to the “underground.” Yet the armed attacks conducted on industrialists, politicians, and policemen by groups of Marxist-Leninist background like Giangiacomo Feltrinelli’s Gruppi d’Azione Partigiana and, later, the Brigate Rosse, became the tail that wagged the dog, fueling a hopeless process of violence and repression against the wider extra-parliamentary left. The militarization of the revolution — in the meantime adopting most of the assumptions of Third Worldism and militant antifascism — drove an intensified split with any real efforts at mass organization.

In this, we also see the curious faddism of a set of intellectual milieux who had, at best, loose personal connections to the particular workers whose militancy they venerated. In 1973, PotOp dissolved “into the movement,” helping form a less organizationally coherent tendency called Autonomia Operaia (the so-called area of autonomy). The patchwork of local groups invariably claimed that they continued to be “working on class composition.” Yet its labor of observation refused to see anything but revolutionary openings: what a founding conference in 1973 called restoring the “awareness of proletarian power which the traditional organizations have destroyed.”38 While Autonomia Operaia was adjacent to a wider array of social movements (such as over housing and feminism) Negri and his co-thinkers radicalized PotOp’s notion of the “armed party,” now popularized in the pistol hand signal that became commonplace on demonstrations. Unlike the PCI, which promised to gather the broad mass of the working population, the Negriite “service” of struggles was impatient with the masses’ lethargy. It sought not to build bases of organization that could endure temporary setbacks — or, still less, representative structures for the class as a whole — but to draw sweeping lessons from bursts of militancy.

From a current that had built its ideology on the study of political and cultural shifts among the working population, Autonomia instead came to reflect a profound disillusionment with mass political organizations. As the extra-parliamentary left parties collapsed between 1973 and 1975 — with hundreds of militants joining an armed underground — the spirit of the times was captured in the slogan “enough speechifying groups — arm the workers!”39 Professor Negri spun such sentiments into the language of overcoming sectional divides among the workers — an aim to be filled through a shared leap into the abyss. As he put it in 1974, “the armed struggle represents the only fundamental strategic moment — i.e. the only possibility of achieving a recomposition of the proletariat and a consolidation of the struggles, and destroying, along the way, capital’s weapons of provocation, of repression and containment that are designed to isolate and newly compartmentalise the various class sectors.”40 While the actual class movement weakened, its vanguard forged ahead with the frontal confrontation with the Italian state, in a cycle of radicalization that continued until the mid-1980s.

As the most visible forms of struggle moved away from the shop floor, the intellectuals behind Autonomia Operaia followed them. Leafleting outside factory gates was no longer where the struggle was at: an impoverished view of the working class as men in blue overalls was thus flipped on its head, with the proclamation of the end of the Fordist era (and, by extension, the idea of a unifying historical subject). Yet when Negri later termed Autonomia Operaia an “Italian Solidarnosc, an instrument against the Communists’ pretense of hegemony over the labor movement,” what was also notable was the loss of the strategic horizon of socialism. Rather unlike Solidarnosc, the dominant trend in this mid-1970s period of Autonomia was a turn to less directly political notions of liberation, “a cultural break with the world of [our parents], the refusal of pro-work ideology (whether [the PCI’s] or a microcapitalist one), the tendency to build communities, to build a new militancy that coincided with life choices, music, psychedelic experiments and sexual liberation — with the question of the legitimate use of (even armed) force now decisive.”41

This was epitomized by the movement of 1977, an existential revolt of youth — students and, in some measure, young proletarians — ever less channeled into collective demands. Here, the movement increasingly took on the form of a series of subcultures and the notion of “being together,” though it assumed more political form in the hounding of CGIL leader Luciano Lama away from Sapienza University, and through the state repression of other demonstrations in Rome. In the words of postoperaista Paolo Virno, this moment saw “a raw material of behaviours, affects and desires that took on rebellious contours and became a productive force, a present state of things.”42 Yet it was also two-sided, in Virno’s own account creating a new neoliberal subjectivity born of the anti-statist, individual rebellion, “the tracks on which power and conflict run today [four decades later].” In his reading, this tearing down of the old Left “respond[ed] to a fundamental phenomenon, and it has become the amniotic fluid in which European fascisms and populisms are growing. They are the horrible twins of the sparks of liberation, the malign version of things that belong to us.”

As Bifo implies,43 the other great development of the 1977 period was to indicate a particular kind of worker as an ever more central historical subject — the “cognitive proletariat,” as counterposed to its manual forbears. For Negri, this new class’s “living labor” augured a different kind of subject, unbound from collective discipline — “becoming cognitive, connecting in a network, [it] conquers a potent transversality.” Yet this also corresponded to the focus on a particular type of “cognitive” worker — those within the universities. For where operaismo had begun promising to take the intellectuals into the factories to mount co-research with workers, the end point — also reached, in a more self-critical way, by Bologna’s Primo Maggio group — was to turn the focus back to the intellectuals’ own social role. Where this was married with a measure of humility and critique of intellectuals’ role in political organization, it was, naturally, a positive development. We would be hard-pressed to say something similar about Negri’s own practice, as an old-school university baron who now told those gathered in his lecture halls that Fordism (and with it, the classe operaia) was over, that the 1970s heralded a cognitive revolution in the production process due to blow away the mass worker, and that they could now think of themselves as the force at the center of history.

Indeed, a constitutive trait of postoperaismo, developing from 1977 onward, is the narrowness of the notion of class it takes as its polemical foil, allowing it to present its own theoretical breakthroughs as novel. The factory workers having failed to meet their date with history, the notion of class that pivoted on them needed to be replaced through a new emphasis on the plural, the marginal, and the indeterminate. Operaismo had emerged from a critique of the Gramscian-Togliattian tradition, embracing the philosophical trend of Galvano Della Volpe: it asserted the “constituent” power of egalitarian social relations à la Rousseau, as opposed to the statist-bureaucratic codification of rights à la Kant. This perspective survives in the postoperaista milieu, but in radicalized form, as a crude and identitarian rejection of parties and the state as disciplinary structures. Hence its veneration of apolitical expressions of subaltern indiscipline — patronizingly identified with desperate acts of revolt or even criminality — which is then “politicized” from the outside through the theoretical discourse of others, rather than in political organization in which these figures are themselves the protagonists.

Such a perspective is furthermore apparent in the striking self-referentiality of the postoperaista milieu, from its showily “difficult” and “mytho-poetic” vocabulary to its focus on performative bids for visibility as a central terrain of political action. This branding exercise is apparent in the curious propagation, even beyond Italy, of terms like autoriduzione — the collective refusal to pay fares or bills — and “proletarian shopping,” widely held up as part of Autonomia Operaia’s innovations. I will leave it up to the reader to decide how likely it is that shoplifting was invented in the 1970s, or even that discussion of the privatization and theft of common resources really entered Marxist discourse thanks to Autonomia.44 This will to appropriate is also visible in other idiosyncratic terms used by this milieu: for instance, when modish horizontalism also demands a “vertical” organization, this is but a roundabout way at arriving at a classic Leninist theme in more opaque terms. But beyond this tendency toward rebranding, the constant veneration of novelty and creativity induces a curiously performative approach to political action, as if to advertise this milieu’s existence within broader mobilizations.

For evidence of this, we need only look at the bizarre stunts and vocabulary that have emerged from even well-known activist scenes associated with Autonomia. In the 1977 movement, the Metropolitan Indians group wore Native American dress and face paint, while in more recent times the so-called Tute Bianche made their name by wearing white overalls. These latter are no marginal idiosyncrasy of postoperaista circles, but one of their leading contemporary expressions, a fixture on the alter-globalization protests in the early 2000s and since. A member of the Italian novelists’ collective Wu Ming (Mandarin for “no name”) breathlessly described this outfit as:

an ironic reference to the specters of urban conflict, then an instrument, symbol and identity available to the movement. Anyone could wear a white overall so long as they respect a certain style. A typical phrase was “Let’s wear the white overall so that others will. Let’s wear the white overall so one day we can take it off.” … the finger points to the moon, and when the multitudes look at the moon the finger will vanish.45

Such pompousness appears as a parody of the nineteenth-century comité directrice, the hand behind the Bakuninist uprising.

Vicious in their denunciation of the bureaucratic traditions of socialism and the mediation imposed by the cadres of the workers’ movement, such circles boast of their enlightened refusal to recuperate the struggles of others. There are to be no leaders, no vanguard, no central strategy — a vision that fits well with the “movement of movements” that characterized the alter-globalization protests of the early 2000s. This lack of need for any central actor also matched a celebration of the power of each movement to act autonomously. Here, the perspective of “changing the world without taking power” promised neither to resist capitalist globalization at the national level (the allegedly utopian bid to assert the power of the nation state) nor to build an internationally coordinated counterpower (of a type with the old “world communist movement”), but rather simply to point to the simultaneous existence of the many kinds of revolt. These may be consciously organized or, in Negri-Hardt’s case, expressions of disruption and tumult whose actors were not even aware that they were involved in political actions at all.

Take the description of the revolutionary subjectivity of migrants in the recent essay “Empire, Twenty Years On.”46 It doesn’t matter if migrants conceive of their actions as political: their migration is an “internationalist insurrection” against a world of borders: “The vast majority of migrants may not be able to articulate the political nature of their flight, let alone understand their actions as part of an internationalist struggle; indeed, their journeys are highly individualized … You have to step back to make out the design of the mosaic, to appreciate the political significance of global migrations as an ongoing insurgency.”47 Not only does this render migrants curiously faceless and uniform, in the guise of “migrant bodies,” but it chalks up a vast, variegated, and often unhappy phenomenon as one more victory for the coming insurrection, whatever the anarchy and desperation — or, indeed, other, much blander reasons — that set people on the move. My father and I are both migrants — are we, too, insurrectionaries? The subjectivity that Negri claims to celebrate is instead erased, as he junks the whole dimension of consciousness and deliberate action. At this level of dehumanization, we might as well say that climate change is a revolutionary phenomenon because it will upset existing social relations and institutions.

Rejecting Representation Is Just Elitism

This leads us to the constitutive elitism of the postoperaista milieu, disdainful of reformist improvements and insisting that it is itself merely a “service” to the movements rather than another political sect. If one does not set oneself up as a leader of others, but is directly and unmediatedly one participant in a multitudinal struggle, then, indeed, one cannot be accountable in the same terms as an elected politician or trade union official. Yet this distinction poses particular problems in a milieu that so consistently blurs the lines between a “movement,” in the sense of mass organization for some collective demand, and the self-promotion of an activist scene through its media or academic platform. If the “factoryism” of old celebrated the strategic power of the assembly-line workers at the point of production, doesn’t the celebration of symbolic and performative “communicational” action end up venerating exactly the kind of people who have the most social power at these levels already? The workers who imposed retreats on capitals are substituted by professors proclaiming their own importance.

Indeed, this connects to a wider problem of any political project that venerates outbursts of militancy as the very embodiment of the new and dynamic forces in society (and, by contrast, the rest of the social majority as a conservative mass). It may be true that, for example, Deliveroo riders who have staged several recent, highly visible strikes represent a new kind of employment relation (or, at least, that their contracts based on bogus self-employment represent a fresh assault on employment rights). Doubtless, their fight involves tactical instruments such as exploiting their employer’s public relations woes — a factor that any study of labor organizing in the service sector would surely reckon with. Yet it would be implausible in the extreme to suggest that such struggles are representative of the condition of the social majority in Italy — with the much wider pattern of recent decades instead marked by a steady rise in long-term unemployment in a land with close to zero economic growth. The invisible persistence of this latter condition is far more characteristic of our time than the bad practices of a famous gig economy employer.

One can work one’s way around this problem, of course, with various rhetorical sleights — perhaps a condemnation of Eurocentrism, “pro-work ideology,” “productivism,” or any of the other many ills attributed to the politics that seeks to put working people in control of the state. The problem is, it’s rather difficult to believe that such a condemnation springs from the subjective consciousness of the masses themselves. Here, “tearing down the old world” plays the same role as in older revolutionary fantasies, yet with the ever-vague “constituent” element never seen as important enough to specify. Interventions by Bifo Berardi, proclaiming in 2013 that he would vote for Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in order to “make the Italian province ungovernable,”48 obey exactly this logic. If he later said this particular call was a mistake, we need only think how difficult it is to imagine him advocating a nationalized social care service, investment in public rail infrastructure, adult education funded through taxation, or, indeed, any of those many boring and unrevolutionary things that make working-class life tolerable.

Of course, not all emancipatory politics is about jobs or welfare. But even looking at the recent period of austerity in Europe, it is obvious that the needs of the least socially powerful — those most likely to rely on interpersonal support networks — decisively demand institutional protections, guaranteeing rights even to those whose own circumstances (type of work, care burden, mental health, etc.) make them less able to mobilize politically. Italy in the 1970s, like many contemporary struggles, tells us that sometimes even workers with apparently little “voice” or social power can create dynamic movements, as can often silenced and humiliated groups like teenagers forced to resort to illegal abortions, undocumented cleaning workers, or majority-minority communities hit by the siting of waste incinerators next to their homes. Yet, in each case, their struggle is not solved simply by the fact of their revolt (or even direct mutual aid among themselves) but rather the generalization of their demands through solidarity action, legislation, and the bureaucracies tasked with ensuring legislation is respected even where, say, most of us do not want to be full-time health and safety inspectors.

Indeed, for all the hatred heaped on the “pro-work” ideology of the dinosaur left and the bureaucratic apparatuses created by the recuperation of all demands, the most important struggles over labor rights in recent Italian history (indeed, the only ones to make any impact at the level of national politics) were, perhaps unsurprisingly, battles fought in defense of the conquests of the old communist and socialist parties. Such was the case of the recent battle to defend Article 18 of the 1970 Workers’ Statute, which offered workers strong guarantees against unjust firings. If postoperaisti did join such movements, they do so with an attitude wittily skewered by Mark Fisher’s description of “neo-anarchists” defending Britain’s National Health Service:

Neo-anarchists will assert that “parliamentary politics never changed anything”, or the “Labour Party was always useless” while attending protestS About the nhs, or retweeting complaints about the dismantling of what remains of the welfare state. There’s a strange implicit rule Here: it’s ok to protest against what parliament has done, but it’s not alright to enter into parliament or the mass media to attempt to engineer change from there. Mainstream media is to be disdaineD, but [the bbc’s flagship debate program] Question Time is to be watched and moaned about on Twitter. Purism shades into fatalism; better not to be in any way tainted by the corruption of the mainstream, better to uselessly “resist” than to risk getting your hands dirty.

The only slight correction to this narrative is to emphasize that autonomia has not been entirely without influence on those engaging in parliamentary politics — this would, indeed, be to underestimate its significance. This is particularly visible in the trajectory of Tute Bianche and the connected current known as the Disobbedienti, which together were the central focus of Pablo Iglesias’s doctoral dissertation. Published as a book with a foreword by leading Italian Tuta Bianca Luca Casarini, the future Podemos leader here celebrated how “through their effective means of communication,” these forces had “demonstrated that it was possible to do politics on the global stage without being a party, and that it is possible to be at the center of the confrontation without being coopted by the representative system.” When it did take form, the “nonparty” Podemos — rich on the contribution of Spain’s very own autonomists, via the Indignados square protests that began in May 2011 — promised to give “verticality” to the “horizontal movements” without undermining their autonomy.49

What is most striking about this experience is how a dismissal of parties and, indeed, the “socialist” end goal — identified with bureaucratization and corruption — was so quickly replaced by a nonaggression pact between a series of scenes and self-appointed movement leaders. The supposed refusal to “obey” an institutional logic — with internal apparatuses and congresses considered manifestations of bureaucratic encrustation — follows the rush toward the tyranny of structurelessness, in which informal leaderships impose themselves as another political caste, with no accountability to the activists “horizontally” organized in local circles. Anyone who has engaged in the circles created by Podemos or, for that matter, the self-described “gaseous” formation La France Insoumise — adopting from the 2000s alter-globalization movement the “horizontal” accoutrements of leaderlessness and unmediated self-representation — will not have failed to note that the hierarchy exists regardless, just as the same few ‘68er talking heads can be expected to surge to the forefront of any postoperaista-organized event in Italy.

Of radically different political origins, these movements are each in their own way expressions of, rather than responses to, the crisis in the structures of working-class political representation, as a hollow celebration of novelty and pluralism serves as the catchall answer to any doubts as to their democratic propriety. Where mass parties like the PCI obeyed a hierarchical but also “dense” organizational logic, with myriad local and professional posts serving as the bases for cadre formation, the common sense among the radical left of recent years has, instead, been based on a simplistic rejection of mediation — which always and everywhere lets it in again through the back door. Even in the absence of structures of accountability like democratic elections (and, indeed, mechanisms to allow those with less free time to impose control on the dictatorship of the always-available), leaders always emerge. Yet in the “tyranny of structurelessness” model, they come either from the social circles of the influential or on the basis of a privatized mediation of party-movement relationships, where positions and influence are bestowed as favors.

In this sense, the disdain for working-class institutions promoted by Autonomia and postoperaismo serves as a warning. Negri and his acolytes have spent at least the last four decades building a series of self-referential scenes boasting of their own novelty, in sometimes frontal counterposition to the Left and the labor movement. This, in particular, took the form of activist impatience with the real complexities of class organization, forever invoking dramatic examples of militancy and revolt in order to condemn the established labor movement as conservative, passé, and boring. Such a gadfly may well airily claim that “proletarian memory is only the memory of past estrangement … communist transition is the absence of memory.”50 Yet unless we believe the revolution is some sort of automatic, almost agency-less, response to capitalist crisis, then we also need to take seriously the foundations that working people have built already — the past successes that give us consciousness of both our strength and our platforms for future gains.

In his crusade against the socialist left, it seems Negri has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.51 In his “Empire, Twenty Years On,” he notes that “Sometimes … the theoretical work done in social movements teaches us more than that written in libraries.”52 Yet today, alas, we are enormously more likely to find the shelves in leftist bookshops heaving under volumes of Hardt-Negri and their acolytes than those from the social movements of this period, never mind the millions-strong PCI. Amid the revolutionary eschatology of the 1960s, it was perhaps easy to want to tear down the old world, to claim that the bureaucratic left was the main barrier to the coming insurrection. Continuing to promote this perspective through the years of armed struggle, Negri et al. helped to destroy not a few lives, while insisting on the futility of all political action outside of their own unaccountable milieu. Today, among the ruins of the twentieth-century left, we can see this veneration of militancy for what it is: a refusal to think seriously about how those without strategic power can ensure their material needs are met.

About the Author

David Broder is a historian of French and Italian communism and the Europe editor of Jacobin.

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