Mario Tronti: An Obituary

by Sergio Fontegher Bologna

August 18, 2023*

On August 7 Mario Tronti passed away at the age of 92, in the village of Ferentillo, not far from Rome. He was the leading figure of “Italian workerism” (operaismo), the basic tenets of which he expressed in his articles for the journal Quaderni Rossi (Red Notebooks, 1961–1963) and, above all, in his book Operai e capitale (Turin, 1966).2 Anyone interested in how he characterized his thought shortly before his death would do well to watch the video of a discussion with him on June 10th of this year. In this video, we see a man who knows that he has little time left to live.3

This discussion was organized by the Derive&Approdi publishing house, founded in the nineties by a former comrade of Potere Operaio (Workers’ Power). Since then, the publishing house has published all of the most important texts of operaismo and autonomia operaia, in addition to a whole series of contributions and testimonies from former activists, including those who made the transition from autonomia into the armed struggle groups. The fact that Mario Tronti again entered into dialogue with the most radical parts of the extra-parliamentary movement in the last phase of his life exemplifies the parabolic path of his political development quite well.

In 1964, after distancing himself from Raniero Panzieri4 and other founders of Quaderni Rossi, he founded the journal Classe Operaia (Working Class) with Toni Negri, Romano Aquati5 and others, with the aim of building a new revolutionary organization. But after just one year, he suddenly decided to rejoin the Italian Communist Party (PCI), continuing a family tradition he had grown up in. For those of us who had poured all of our energy into the project of creating an alternative to the PCI, which had already set out along the path of social democracy, Tronti’s decision was tantamount to a betrayal. This prompted the crisis within the Classe Operaia group, and we had to stop publishing in 1966. I remember how bitter our disappointment was. Other comrades joined the PCI alongside him, including Massimo Cacciari, Alberto Asor Rosa and Umberto Coldagelli.

There is no doubt that the “operaisti mindset” played a hegemonic role in the Italian workers’ movement in the period from 1969–1973. This hegemony must be emphasized if we are to understand subsequent events, such as the so-called “April 7th affair” and the systematic persecution of former Potere Operaio activists.6 Thus, at the beginning of the 1970s, Mario Tronti vanished from sight just as his theories found their greatest resonance within the social movements.

His decision to rejoin the PCI (in fact, he had never formally left, but was considered a “heretic”) was by no means an opportunistic move. On the contrary, it corresponded to a new phase of his thinking, which found expression in the publication of the short essay entitled “Sull’autonomia del politico” (“On the Autonomy of the Political”, Milan 1977). What does this title mean?

In operaist theory, the relationship between class and organization, working class and party, is constantly called into question by class struggles. The working class achieves an identity only when it comes into conflict with the power of capital; in this way it achieves its autonomy. The collective intelligence it develops allows it to determine both its form of organization and its strategy.

In his short essay, Tronti claims that politics, that is, the traditional organizational form of the workers’ movement, i.e., the party, maintains its own space in which it can operate and pursue its strategy in total autonomy, that is, independently of the class struggles taking place in the social context of capital’s exploitation. Machiavelli, Weber, Rathenau and Carl Schmitt are the authors Tronti uses to develop his argument. Marx and Lenin remained in the background.

With the idea of the “autonomy of the political,” it seemed to us at the time that his thinking had taken an about-face. In the subsequent years, he repeatedly emphasized that his ideas were a continuation of the path he had embarked upon in 1966 and that the idea of the autonomy of the political arose from the crisis of the autonomy of class struggles in the factories.7 In fact, the power relations between the working class and capital had become increasingly complex after the oil crisis of October 1973, and not only in Italy. Even the so-called “movement of 1977”8 was highly critical of the operaist concepts from the 1960s as well as of Marxist ideas in general. Foucault was the new prophet, and feminism also played an important role. But Tronti, Cacciari and Asor Rosa went about their own “critical thinking” differently than Foucault. Max Weber, the Frankfurt School, and Walter Benjamin were their main references. The problem is that their role within the party had no impact on the party leadership’s line and in no way hindered or slowed down the party’s systematic orientation toward neoliberalism. Cacciari fared well as mayor of Venice (especially compared to today’s municipal administrations), and Tronti increasingly focused on his work teaching at the University of Siena. Even a summary analysis of his thought would exceed the scope of this text.9 The various, conflicting interpretations of the meaning of the “autonomy of the political” which ranged from enthusiastic approval to mean-spirited derision constitute a special chapter in Italian political theory. For a better understanding, it is worth watching the recording of the 2017 discussion between Tronti and Cacciari at the House of Culture in Milan10 and reading the small book in which he debates his theory with Toni Negri and Étienne Balibar.11

On the other hand, it must be admitted that even the revolutionary variant of operaismo reached a dead end after 1975. Neither Mario Tronti within the PCI nor Toni Negri within the social movements succeeded in influencing the general course of events. But while Negri’s writings always contained a perspective imbued with hope and the will to fight, Tronti’s works seemed increasingly characterized by an ever-deeper despair. In this sense, his disposition recalls that of Bruno Trentin, the charismatic CGIL trade union leader, who in his posthumously published diaries gives free rein to despair in the face of the decline of socialist values in the Italian workers’ movement, both in his organization and in the party. And yet both men, Tronti and Trentin, maintained fidelity to their organizations.

In 1992, Mario Tronti was elected to the Italian Senate of the Republic12 with more than 80,000 votes, testifying to his popularity among the party base. In 2013, he was again elected to the Senate in the constituency of Lombardy. From this last period in Parliament, his commemorative speech on the centenary of the Russian Revolution in October 2017 remains unforgettable.13 From 2003–2015, he was chairman of the Centro per la Riforma dello Stato (Center for the Reform of the State) Foundation, founded by Pietro Ingrao, one of the great figures of the postwar CPI. He remained a man of institutions until the end: as recently as February of this year, he donated his estate to the archives of the Senate – an institution whose president, as of 13 October 2022, is now the old fascist Ignazio Benito La Russa.

But this is not the end of the story. As a school of thought, operaismo has had a wider reach than that of the operaisti themselves. As a method of research, it was particularly important––and not only in Italy––in the mid-1970s, when the decomposition of the industrial working class began and the incessant precarization and flexibilization of the work force broke the militancy of the mass worker. This is when wage earners and technicians began their struggles in the service industries (in the health care system, in transportation), and medical workers learned from the experience of the workers' councils in the chemical industry and other hazardous sectors. Without the operaist approach, there would not have been journals like Primo maggio (First of May), Quaderni del territorio (Notebooks of the Territory), Sapere (Knowledge) or Classe (Class), which have left quite a mark on historians, urban planners, physicists, and so on. The ecological movement in Italy was initially very strongly influenced by operaismo.

The radical feminism of the group “Wages for Housework”14 was born in the context of Potere Operaio. Even though operaismo was no longer hegemonic, it still played a major role. When the great counter-revolution of capitalism erupted in the early 1980s in all its various forms, when the 1968 generation retreated into private life and all seemed lost, operaismo still survived as rivers carved through limestone, while the persecution of operaist militants and the ensuing diaspora contributed to its spread abroad. Even politically militant tendencies that had a significant impact, such as Lotta Continua (The Struggle Continues), saw themselves in the tradition of operaismo - that of Panzieri rather than Tronti – and thus as the legitimate heirs of Quaderni Rossi.

It is much easier to destroy an organization than to eradicate a school of thought. With the beginning of the new century, the subterranean rivers emerged from their stone karst, and Mario Tronti showed increasing interest in the lessons of the old comrades and the initiatives of the new generation, who found his early writings to be a source of new material for reflection and practical research. This was the case, for example, with my analyses of the independent self-employed or freelance workers, but Tronti also followed the increasing role of logistics in globalization with great curiosity.

He never wavered from his way of thinking. The question of the political was like an obsession for him, his despair had deepened, he described it as “anthropological pessimism,” which made it difficult for him to make himself understood to his “interlocutors, since they interpret it as resignation,” as he says in the video mentioned above. His pessimism was directed against the individualization of society, but a particular kind of individualization whose agents he called “mass individuals.”

His style became increasingly contemplative, and the more politics became a bandit’s game, the more he spoke of its necessity, of its dignity, of its sublimity. For the generations of activists that have succeeded our generation, who have inherited a globalized world and want to continue fighting in the midst of very great difficulties, Mario Tronti has always remained simply the author of Operai e capitale, a “maestro.” On the other hand, for those of us who, regardless of our differences with him, have harbored a most humane compassion for him — and which he reciprocated in turn — it is difficult not to criticize some of his decisions. But we recognize in all his writings, in all his statements, a distinctive style that is always fascinating and thought provoking – even when we disagreed.

Recently, many sections of the working class around the world seem to have once again seized the initiative to contest their exploitation. I believe that wherever such movements spring up, they send us a call in which the soft, gentle voice of Mario Tronti can always be heard, loud and clear.