Operaismo was a creature of its time and place. While some of its key texts had previously appeared in English, David Broder’s 2019 translation fully expresses Tronti’s ideas.
Workerism can only be understood with the background of Italy and Europe in the first decades after the Second World War. This is an important point.
Reading adulatory blurbs on the Workers and Capital’s jacket from the likes of Antonio Negri, Mike Davis, and Fredric Jameson, one is led to expect a text of epochal significance.
The truth lies somewhere in between.
The first portion of the book includes a painstaking dissection of the process of capitalist production based firmly on Volume II of Karl Marx’s Capital.
This is an exercise in Marxology, carried out with scrupulous thoroughness, but not the sort of thing to rouse the hearts of young activists, as the secondary literature on workerism suggests it did.
Matters seem more promising in subsequent sections on the strategy of workers’ struggle at the site of capitalist production (i.e. on the shop floor).
If a century of labour struggles has shown anything, attacking the system directly at the point of value creation is always an effective tactic.
From the perspective of the Italian (and, to an extent, the European) left of the 1960s, matters once seemed otherwise.
Italy was in the throes of a massive industrial expansion, particularly in the north, where Torino, a historic centre of automobile production, was the hub of the country’s economic miracle.
Despite – or because of – Italy’s newfound affluence, the seeds of worker militancy in the region were clearly in evidence.
In July 1962, a demonstration in support of striking Fiat workers in Torino’s Piazza Statuto turned into a riot that was only quelled by beatings and more than 1,000 arrests.
However, the Italian Communist Party (PCI), with which Mario Tronti had a long but turbulent relationship stretching back to his adolescence, was focused more on national politics than factory militancy.
The PCI was mired in the vicissitudes of mainstream politics. The Italian Socialist Party (the PSI) was worse.
As Tronti noted in September 1964, “The Socialist Party is dead, as a class party.”
To attempt to “knead life back into the corpse with the moral massaging of the old red heart of the nineteenth century” was worse than pointless.
As for the PCI, it was reduced to begging for scraps from the Christian Democrats. Its toadying approach was founded on bastardising Antonio Gramsci.
Long-serving party chief Palmiro Togliatti (1938-1964) had seized on Gramsci’s concept of the “historic bloc” but turned it into an excuse for a passive politics that avoided exacerbating industrial relations.
“The reduction of the party to the wax holding together the historic bloc was one of the most determinant factors, if not the most, in blocking off any revolutionary perspective in Italy,” wrote Tronti.
In Tronti’s opinion, Gramsci bore much of the blame. His concept of the historic bloc “did nothing but reveal a particular stage, a national moment of capitalist development”, he wrote.
Whether this is fair to Gramsci is a moot point. The way he was read in the PCI made Antonio Gramsci complicit in its lack of militant engagement with workers.
This is, of course, only part of the story. Another significant element was the heritage of the Bolshevik revolution and of Lenin’s role in it, in particular.
Having argued in “What Is To Be Done?” that the working class’s efforts would only get it to the level of “trade union consciousness”, Lenin had executed the most successful revolution of the left by using a tightly focused group of activists to drive the revolutionary process forward.
Leninism synergised in unfortunate ways with the bowdlerised version of Gramsci on offer from the PCI leadership.
Against this background, a call for worker militancy and shop floor organising presaged a return to the activist roots of Italian communism.
For Mario Tronti, the factory was the crucial locus of social power. In his 1965 essay “Marx, Labour Power, Working Class,” the text of which forms the bulk of Workers and Capital, he wrote:
We can see…that working-class political power is intimately connected to the productive power of wage labour. The power of capital, conversely, is primarily social power. Working-class power is a potential power over production – that is, over a particular aspect of society. Capitalist power is a real dominion over society in general. But such is the nature of capital that it requires a society centred on production. Production, a particular aspect of society, thus becomes the aim of society in general. Whoever controls and dominates it controls and dominates everything.
While the PCI and the PSI were engaged in an ultimately futile project of trying to wrest power from the Italian political system to achieve their ends, for Tronti and his colleagues, this strategy failed to attack the system at the point necessary to control it.
Indulging electoral politics allowed capital to play the game the way it wanted to play. Attacking the production process was a means of striking at the roots of power and reconfiguring society as a whole.
What does workerism have to offer us today?
For all the talk of post-industrial (to say nothing of postcapitalist) societies, the global working class continues to grow.
The fact that it has mostly done so in the places where industrial production has been offshored only illustrates how vital shop floor organising continues to be.
On the other hand, one could look at workerism and conclude that it was inappropriate in the context of Europe and North America, where historically, very low rates of unionisation mean that factory militancy doesn’t offer much.
But even here, the heritage of operaismo has an important role to play.
In the left press, a spirited debate is underway over American historian Robert Brenner and sociologist Dylan Riley’s concept of political capitalism and the crisis theory that underlies it.
The significance of the debate pertains to progressive strategy. Should the left emphasise gradualism or be ready to bring the system to a halt?
It’s a typically progressive versus radical contest based on different analyses of capitalism, replete with disagreement over the efficacy of accommodating – or rejecting – mainstream politics and parties.
If it sounds like we’re back to the infighting of the 1960s Italian left, we are, at least in terms of parallel conflicts between militants and social democrats at an ideological level.
The revival of Mario Tronti’s work provides a needed reminder that radicalism has its value. Particularly given the limitations of leftists in influencing neoliberal parties in countries like Italy and the United States.
Though there are vibrant lefts within their similarly branded Democratic parties, their influence is always limited to one degree or another and can be irrelevant when it comes to crises like the war in Ukraine.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t legitimate reasons to suffer long marches through the institutions, so to speak.
The trick is to find room for workerism when and where it’s required and to cultivate it for that inevitability.
Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.