Retiring from the Senate in 2018, it’s hard to identify the older Tronti with the political project he was consumed by in his youth. But that’s only if you aren’t familiar with operaismo (workerism).
Few iterations of socialist thought have found new relevance today, particularly in a world where the struggles the philosopher viewed as central have shifted out of the metropolitan centre.
Like many aspects of Italian politics, operaismo can seem abstract when viewed outside the context of Italy in the 1960s.
It was a mode of thought that sought to reclaim the fundaments of Karl Marx’s critical project, hidden behind a century of Marxism. Locating operaismo requires a certain amount of triangulation.
At the European level, Marxism had been in crisis since the failure of European workers to rise against declarations of war in 1914.
The failure of internationalism in the face of nationalism was compounded during the two decades that followed by the rise of fascism,
For politicians and activists, this begged the question of why proletarian internationalism failed to gain traction, smashing Marxist parties and killing their members.
In the decades following the Second World War, Marxism was channelled into the sclerotic institutional structures of Stalinism.
This era saw the rise of non-Marxist social democracy, as in West Germany, where the Social Democrats (SPD) officially renounced their allegiance to Marxism in 1959, the Godesberger Programm.
Admittedly, this professed turn had been in effect for decades. The SPD had just taken longer to make this renunciation explicit than had social democratic parties elsewhere in Europe.
The vibrancy that Marxism retained was found in the work of dissident thinkers. It often looked back to the work of figures from the 1920s and 1930s, such as György Lukaćs, Karl Korsch, and Antonio Gramsci.
Their subsequent histories give this lineage a distinctly archaeological quality.
Gramsci died in 1937 after years in Mussolini’s prisons. Korsch fled Germany in 1933 and lived in relative obscurity in the United States. Lukaćs had made his peace with Stalinism.
These two developmental threads, the Stalinist and the dissident, had pronounced effects on the Italian left.
Since 1944, the Italian Communist Party (PCI) had been led by Palmiro Togliatti. Returning from exile in Moscow that year, he quickly partook in the compromise between the antifascist parties and the monarchy.
This would become a continuing theme for Togliatti, who spent the balance of his political life vainly hoping for more than he would ever get out of accommodation with Alcide De Gasperi’s Christian Democrats.
Italian Marxism, both within and outside the PCI, was strongly influenced by Antonio Gramsci. But the bulk of Gramsci’s mature work comprised fragments, articles relating to specific events, or the mass of suggestive notes he had composed in his years of incarceration.
The Prison Notebooks were published in thematically organised volumes between 1948 and 1951. The complete critical edition was not published until 1975. They were written in an often indirect or encoded language meant to deflect the attention of the prison censor.
Teasing out coherent and systematic views from the mass of material was (and remains) a project of critical philology, resisting concise or unequivocal renderings.
Which is not to say that no one did. On the Italian left in the two decades after the fall of fascism, Gramsci’s intellectual influence loomed large.
While the PCI attempted to claim him as a part of their political and intellectual heritage, for the non-party left, Antonio Gramsci’s complex, culturally-tinged Marxism had a strong appeal.
Putting aside the hiatus between Gramsci’s ideas and their later appropriations, the appeal of his approach is not hard to understand.
Even on a superficial level, Gramsci employed an arsenal of concepts (hegemony, organic intellectuals, war of position vs. war of movement, etc.) that were quite attractive to leftists coping with the failure of proletarian revolution to catch on in the years since the rise of Bolshevism.
Against this backdrop, a move back in the direction of the fundamentals of Marx’s thought had a powerful appeal, if also relatively narrow.
Returning the focus of radical agitation to the factory, the immediate frontline of capitalist production was an ideal that fired the imagination of activists in the process of leaking out of the left wings of the PCI and Socialist PSI.
Dissident socialist Raniero Panzieri’s 1959 arrival in Torino began the coalescing of what would become operaismo.
Panzieri had been active in the PSI, co-editing its journal Mondo operaio (Workers World) in 1957. He was then expelled from the party in 1959 for opposing the PSI’s coalition with the Christian Democrats.
After moving to Torino to take up a position with the Einaudi publishing house, Panzieri became associated with a motley group of like-minded left dissidents.
These included the industrial sociologist Romano Alquati and Tronti, whose cell of activists at the University of Roma was constantly on the verge of exclusion from the PCI for their lack of ideological orthodoxy.
Together with several others (including the future autonomists Antonio Negri and Danilo Montaldi), they founded Quaderni Rossi (Red Notebooks) in September 1961.
Quaderni Rossi became a flagship for a return to Marx’s fundamentals and a policy of renewed militancy that looked back to the high point of labour activism in Torino in 1919 and 1920, the so-called Biennio Rosso (Red Biennium).
Quaderni Rossi remained in publication until 1966, but it was its early years, before the departure of Tronti in 1963 and the death of Panzieri in 1964, when it was at its most ideologically interesting.
In these years, its content was shaped by intense internal disputes about factory organising tactics and sociology’s role in Marxism.
Debates about the latter issue were particularly intense between Panzieri, who was sceptical that sociology could detach itself from its roots in the ruling classes, and Alquati, who would leave the world of radicalism altogether in the 1970s for a university appointment.
Tronti split from Quaderni Rossi in 1963, founding a new journal, Classe operaia (Working Class), in which he continued to argue for an account of Marxism as a science, the implication of which was that workers’ agitation was best undertaken in the factories, the primary site of value creation in capitalism.
Classe operaia was also short-lived (publishing only until 1967). But it was nonetheless influential in forming an approach to radical worker activism that eschewed both the gradualist and party-centric politics of the PCI, as well as Gramsci’s idealism.
In 1966, Tronti emphasised his particular path in Operai e capitale (Workers and Capital) in 1961. Here, along with previously published pieces, Tronti published the long essay, “Marx, Labour-Power, Working Class,” the defining text of operaismo if anything could claim that title.
The publication of Operai e capitale caused a “shiver of recognition” on the Italian left, according to Steve Wright, author of Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism, one the most extensive histories of operaismo available in English.
The book’s influence was felt centrally in the radical movements of 1968 in Italy, and its recent English translation, Workers and Capital, creates an exciting opportunity to ask in what ways its focus on workers’ struggles might be relevant to the neoliberal capitalism of today.
The Tronti classic also provides a moment to look back to the radical movements of the 1960s, often viewed as futile but, in their day, a source of optimism that another world is, in fact, possible. Reading through Workers and Capital, it’s not hard to feel that socialism might finally hold nationalism at bay.
Considering how frequently the press declares that fascism is just around the corner, it’s a sobering reminder of our right to reject the status quo and memes which make powerlessness seem permanent.
Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.