Class Party Class

by Mario Tronti

March 1967*

The sixties are finishing ahead of time. The workers’ struggle has its short cycles and its long-term developments. At this moment in the cycle of struggles, the workers are fighting on the terrain of a particular set of demands. In the longer time frame of development, the class is growing, concentrating, has locked itself into a political relation of production. The twenty years that followed the Second World War already constitute an epoch in the class struggle, at an international level. Within this epoch, the sixties in Italy have their place. Struggles with an advanced content, massified forms, a movement rich in its continuity, an open character to the conflict and sizeable results that while provisional are nonetheless substantial. It is from here we must start, not in order to theorise, for the sake of it, the necessary upturn of the workers’ struggle and its movements, but to prepare ourselves, anticipating it, and the next possible leap forward. The events of the last few years among the working class of the countries of high capitalism are without meaning only for those who fear to look them in the face. Since the day the factory workers put down the guns they had used to shoot fascists and once more took up the fundamental weapon of the wage directed against profit, since that day for all except – naturally – the bosses, the workers exited History. When today you say “working class”, you must resign yourself to seeing any light of intelligence drain from your interlocutor’s eyes. No social mass has ever been so defamed as today that of wage workers. Attacking the boss’s interest or responding to the initiative of capital is relatively simple. But when the ideological attack of the organised workers’ movement intervenes, it is difficult to resist without breaking with the old organisations, knowing that one or other of them may still be of use in the immediate future. All those who have seen, even if only from afar, a large concentration of workers will tell you that workers these days are only interested in fighting for themselves. But this great practical achievement, which forever puts an end to the prehistory of the working class, is taken as nothing less than the political limit of the present situation. In this way it’s taken for granted that the class is integrated within the system, at exactly the moment it is starting to establish its own full autonomy on a material basis. Capital on one side, the ideologies of the movement on the other, both aimed at a high development of the general social consciousness of the part of the worker: after that, the doors of the state were opened and behind those doors the management of the economic contradictions of the whole of society. The response of the workers in the last few years has been formidable: money! You guys can handle the rest of it. Nobody any longer understood a thing about how things stood with the class struggle. But in those two decades what is the initiative first taken by the workers and by them alone? It was first and foremost an action taken within their class. On the terrain of the wage dynamic the more advanced sections have pulled forward those that are more backwards: without institutional mediation, without organisational solutions, but in this way objectively offering the outcome of the conquests already won as itself a model to be conquered by the entire mass of workers [operai] and the majority of employees [lavoratori]. By this point it has almost become a law: that which the vanguard of the mass of workers obtains will subsequently be demanded by all other sections of labour, whether productive or unproductive. Contemporary capitalism’s permanent conjuncture of cascading worker-initiated wage increases and the ripple effect of inflation are one and the same process. Inflation arising from costs – in actual fact from wages – bind together the vicissitudes of capital in the post-war period. And Italy in 1964, in its own small way, has provided a classic model of how things can hurtle down this road. It is from this that emerges all those incomes policy frameworks that tend towards the control of the variable-wage. The last illusions of a free, mechanical function dictating the setting of wages, and thus of prices, collapses twice over: once under the impact of an attack by workers pushing for wage increases beyond the average productivity of the system, and the second time under the capitalist response of a compulsory, coercive economic policy, entrusted to the power [forza] of the state. Yet throughout the process this is not the most important datum, but rather something else: the fact that incomes policy carries within itself the uniform adjustment in sectorial wage dynamics, that requires that all wages follow the average increase in productivity of the entire system. A fact in itself ambiguous, because while the capitalist solution of incomes policy tends to deprive, and perhaps does deprive, the working-class vanguard of the initiative of wage struggle, on the other hand it also ends by abolishing and transcending a limitation of the general struggle. The wage adjustment tied to productivity presupposes the progressive weakening of the technology gap, provokes the growth of a general social uniformity in labour-power. The tendential end of a political, active, cutting-edge role of the large worker vanguards brings with it a process of enforced massification of the class. The impossibility of an articulated struggle destroys the possibility of an articulation of a policy by employers. The unwillingness of workers to control wages exacerbates, on this terrain, the authoritarian bent of state political structures. On one hand therefore a process of further working-class unification, reduced internal mobility in its struggles, greater horizontal communication, even outside of open conflict, between the various, increasingly homogeneous, sections of the class. On the other hand, the political growth, at an international level, of the collective capitalist, who does not need to abolish national borders to push through, in a unified fashion, the initiative of controlling wage dynamics and thus the plan to manage its own development in a balanced manner. One can predict from these facts that strong elements of rigidity will be introduced in the next cycle of class struggle on the terrain of capitalist development. And as in any other non-elastic structure, social conflict will be rarer, but all the more decisive. Above all, the new political content of struggles will increase both in degree and intensity. The incomes policy is not yet passed. It is not passed at the level of the international working class. But if the conflict continues with the political state on one side and the trade unions on the other, the incomes policy will pass and there are no two ways about it. It is not a question of abandoning the workers’ grip on the wage. Quite the contrary. It is a question of making it explicitly serve a strategy of attack against profit, which is to say against the power of capital. It is only in this way that the international mechanism of workers’ struggle will again be put in motion, at the level of mass politics. This cannot happen without – at least at some point – the hand passing, in the direct leadership of struggles, from the union to the party. Never before have we been faced with the knot of the party in such need of untying, as we will be in the coming years. As the political action of capital centralises, the union response, articulated by its very nature, will slacken and cede terrain to the adversary. The more that the process of massification of industrial labour-power moves forward, the more the room for spontaneity in working-class political movements will retreat and tend to disappear. Spontaneity has always been a relation between vanguard and mass. And the “historical” party has passively reproduced this relation on which it is built, together with which it is being extinguished in the relations of production, that is on the real terrain of the class struggle. A political structure of organisation that traces and expresses, at the level of advanced capital, the totality of the working class in its needs and its movements: this is the next problem that a new theory and a new practice of the party will have to confront and resolve. At that time the relation vanguard-mass will reoccur on a grander scale and correctly in the international context: a guiding leitmotif [filo rosso] of the struggles that will emerge within the macroscopic processes of industrialisation in the capitalistically backwards economies and before which the history of workers in the West will appear like child’s play. It is often difficult to allow oneself to be convinced by elementary facts. Intelligence feels as if it is collapsing when it discovers the obvious. But from the point of view of its further material development, even if only quantitative, is not the working class of today’s world newly born? You do the maths on how many billions of people will set themselves in motion, outside of Europe, outside of the United States. But let’s ask ourselves: how many hundreds of millions of factory workers will amass in such a climate of revolutionary tension? This is the new working class and not those few technicians that pride themselves on pushing buttons to produce surplus value. The simple growth of this immense mass of industrial labour-power, and within it the political passage from proletarians to workers, will be the real challenge of this glimpse of the coming millennium [questo scorcio del millennio], rather than the technological futurism of those who already picture in the automated factory all work transferred over to the machines. As you can see, with this thought we return to the long term. At the start and at the end of an experience one tends to look further ahead. On the other hand, when the experience itself is ongoing and in development, things close by impose their presence and ask, one by one, to be seen and tested. On this reciprocal linking between forward-looking discussion and immediate political proposals we have been well drilled. We will just have to go back to it in different conditions and on different terrains. Every moment in the class struggle has its own specific characteristics. It is against these – not against the grand grievances of the struggle – that it will be necessary to evaluate the form of one’s own subjective contribution. Journals, newspapers, leaflets in the midst of struggle, non-institutionalised political groups: all of these are irremediably bound to the 1960s in Italy, to the class situation, to the party situation which, going forward – or, if you prefer, backward – is nevertheless closing out this decade well in advance. In this new situation, new forces have with difficulty grown, forces that are asking to transition to effective political work, where they can build on their past achievements and accumulated skills. One must know how to leave behind experiences once gained. Otherwise, they become bad habits. And eventually they come to congeal forces, not only – as in the past – in the historical minorities, but also – as today – in the disruptive groups at the periphery of the workers’ movement. Quite different weapons are needed today against the ever more powerful initiative of capitalism. By quite different means must we henceforward seek to participate in the movement of the international working class. Quite different adaptable skills will need to be brought to bear in the day-to-day party struggle.

It’s time for us to get going. We’re not lacking in things to do. A monumental project of research and study trips through our heads. And politically, with our feet once more planted on the ground, there is a new level of action to be won. It will not be easy.

Classe Operaia, 3 March 1967, pp.1-28