Martin Thomas reviews Storming Heaven: class composition and struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism, by Steve Wright. Pluto Press.
"Autonomist" Marxism is influential in the new anti-capitalist generation. Quite what it means is hard to tell from its best-selling books, like Toni Negri and Michael Hardt's Empire, or even the practice of its avowed partisans, like Italy's Disobedienti. Steve Wright's book Storming Heaven: class composition and struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism (Pluto Press) - readable, critical, but sympathetic - is much more down to earth, tracing the origins of "autonomism" from the "workerist" tradition in Italian Marxism in the 1960s.
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On other sites:
A compact summary of autonomism, in the form of an interview with the American autonomist Harry Cleaver by Massimo De Angelis: www.eco.utexas.edu/Homepages/facstaff/Cleaver/InterviewwithHarryCleaver.html.
Other texts, including the historic ones like Mario Tronti's "Lenin in England": www.geocities.com/cordobakaf/index.html.
The leading figure of workerism, Raniero Panzieri, had been the editor of the theoretical magazine of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI). Pushed out of that post as the PSI leadership moved the party from being a self-proclaimedly "revolutionary Marxist" (in fact, Stalinistic) movement to joining the Christian Democrats in government coalition, he was still in the PSI.
Among his collaborators on a new magazine, Quaderni Rossi, launched in 1960, some, like Toni Negri, were in the PSI; others, like Mario Tronti, in the Italian Communist Party (PCI), which was then a huge force in the working class.
They were dissatisfied with the immobility and stagnation of the labour movement. The PCI divided working-class activity into three distinct spheres: economic battles; parliamentary politics; and the revolution, an impossibility until Stalin gave the word.
The economic struggle was very limited after the unions' defeats in the late 1940s and early 50s. Parliamentary politics even more so, since the PCI would be a reviled opposition party for the foreseeable future. And the future revolution? Off the horizon.
The workerists looked especially to the big new factories in northern Italy, full of young men, migrants from the South, who faced the factory discipline with the fresh anger of a new industrial generation and with whom the union activists, mostly formed in the 1940s, had trouble communicating. Here was "a new working class with needs and behaviour no longer commensurate with those of either the labour movement or capital".
The PCI and PSI proposed "development" and "planning", against the supposed inability of the corrupt Christian-Democrat regime to achieve those things.
No, wrote Panzieri, "one could say that the two terms capitalism and development are the same thing". For the workerists development "means neither a generic 'progress' nor 'modernisation' but... the extended reproduction of... the capital relation and the class contradictions which followed in its train".
"We have worked with a concept that puts capitalist development first, and workers second. This is a mistake... We have to start again from the beginning: and the beginning is the class struggle of the working class" (Mario Tronti).
Years later, the spirit of the workerists would be summed up by Francesco Ciafaloni: "To know more about the workers of Turin, to know more in general about the oppressed classes, is not a small problem. It is the cultural and political problem of any left worthy of the name". And by Negri himself: "The fact that we cannot spell [the alternative] out does not mean that it does not exist. It exists as a murmuring among the proletariat".
Picking up on Marx's idea in Capital chapter 15 about workers' strikes driving the development of machinery, the workerists emphasised workers' struggle as the force pushing capitalist innovations and reorganisations.
Influenced by the neo-Trotskyists CLR James, Raya Dunayevskaya, and Cornelius Castoriadis, they were critical of the USSR and of "popular-frontism", but they sneered at the Trotskyists' preoccupations. Their working assumption was that a sufficiently powerful impulse from workers' struggles would pull the PCI back onto an autonomous working-class line.
"It is clear that we are not interested in the theme of the relationships between Togliatti [long-term PCI leader] and Stalin... We gladly leave it to the Trotskyists: this is not the heart of the problem. The heart of the problem lies in the relation between the PCI and the working class."
"Classic operaismo [workerism] rejected the Third Worldism... widespread among the Western New Left", according to Wright; but the workerists' sneers at Trotskyism would cost them dear after Mao's Cultural Revolution of 1966-7. They failed to resist the "soft Maoism" which engulfed almost all the Italian far left.
A big student radicalisation developed in Italy from 1967, and a huge surge of industrial militancy from 1968. The revolutionary left grew quicker and more than anywhere else in the world for many decades. By the mid 1970s there were three revolutionary-left groups, Avanguardia Operaia, Lotta Continua, and PDUP, each with tens of thousands of activists and its own daily paper. Negri, from 1967 to 1973, would lead a fourth group, Potere Operaia, with maybe three to four thousand members.
In 1968-9 the university-based radicals influenced and organised thousands of young workers. The workerists divided. Tronti and others retreated into the PCI. Negri's group broke with any orientation towards the PCI and PSI, arguing that the factory militancy was "completely political", and that Italy was on the brink of revolution. Workerism began to develop the anarchistic tone characteristic of autonomism today.
By 1970, however, the union leaders had lifted their act dramatically, led sizeable struggles winning sizeable gains, and regained hegemony in the factories.
Later in the 1970s, successive waves of "social" struggles developed - refusal to pay increased rents, fares, or electricity charges; squatting; a battle for abortion rights. The far right developed its "strategy of tension" with indiscriminate bombings, which would culminate in the killing of 85 people at Bologna railway station in August 1980. On the streets violent and even fatal clashes between left-wing demonstrators on one side, and fascists or police on the other, became commonplace.
Negri responded to the ebbing of ultra-militant exuberance in the factories by arguing the "worker attack" was still "completely political" - only the composition of the proletariat had changed. The proletariat was now not the "mass worker" in the factory, but the "socialised worker" - in short, students, housewives, unemployed people, workers in small factories, anyone who was active in the new social struggles.
Potere Operaio dissolved in 1973 and Negri's circle helped launch a new, more diffuse movement, Autonomia Operaia (Workers' Autonomy - hence "autonomist").
Some years of windy rhetoric about "the armed party", "insurrection", "proletarian justice", and the revolutionary merits of "sabotage" and "direct appropriation" culminated in demoralisation, collapse, and the jailing of Negri himself and hundreds of others in 1979 on trumped-up charges of involvement with the Red Brigades, a leftist-militarist group which in March-May 1978 had kidnapped and then killed Aldo Moro, chief leader of the Christian Democratic Party.
The "autonomist" political current was crushed, and would remain alive mainly through Negri's theoretical writings (notably, a study on Marx's Grundrisse) until re-emerging in the late 1990s.
Wright identifies two main weaknesses of the workerist-autonomist tradition: "its penchant for all-embracing categories that, in seeking to explain everything, too often would clarify very little" (he cites the concept of the "socialised worker" as "the most damaging of all"); and "political impatience".
Ruefully he comments: "The workerists' talk of the compactness of the class merely stood as an admission that its inner workings remained opaque to them... [They] frequently confus[ed] those minority practices deemed most 'advanced' for the activity of the class as a whole".
He calls for a return to the patient and sober study of actual class composition.
A compact summary of autonomism, in the form of an interview with the American autonomist Harry Cleaver by Massimo De Angelis:
Review of Steve Wright's book by Sergio Bologna, a leading "workerist" of the 1960s and 70s: http://www.generation-online.org/t/stormingheaven.htm.
Other texts, including the historic ones like Mario Tronti's "Lenin in England": http://www.geocities.com/cordobakaf/index.html.
Reviewer: Martin Thomas