Preliminary theses on Workerism

by Mario Tronti

From Fabrizio D’Agostini, ed., Operaismo e centralità operaia (Roma: Editori Riuniti, 1978), pp. 291-94.*

1. It is a matter in short of disposing with the historical event of operaismo, in order to concentrate our attention and direct our thinking towards the political problem of the centrality of the worker.

2. There is an operaismo of the organisation and an operaismo in theory. The first involves parts of and moments in the union and the party over the last three decades. The social figure of the craft worker – first as a dominant presence, then as a passive inheritance – has left a mark on the framework of the organisation and on its local and sectorial mode of doing politics. Here the critique of operaismo is a critique of the political, in its aspect of concrete doing, of practical action. And not only at a national level.

3. Italian operaismo in the 1960s was a theoretical experience. Behind it: a particular reading of a particular Marx (The Grundrisse, Capital on industry) and a particular reading of particular workers’ struggles (the 1930s in the USA, the 1960s in Italy). In the middle: the political figure of the mass worker, the assembly line worker, Taylorised, alienated, not a technical-sociological given, but a strike force in itself anti-capitalist, which jumps over the head of the State. At the front: the dead end of a minoritarian practice, by which I mean the absence of a terrain of practical politics. Here too the criticism of operaismo is a critique of the political, but of a theoretical sort, built on the logic of concepts and void of results in the only field that counts, that of the shift in power relations.

4. Two ways out. One is the sociological way: the end of the social worker’s political shockwave, the growth in tertiarization and the diffuse factory, the school-factory and productive study; the exit from the factory is here located in the social; the encounter is with extreme extremism; the centrality of the worker is lost and overturned. The other path is the political way: within the social relation of production, between production and the social, between the factory and society, there is the State, its history, its use, its management; the political terrain is not the form of the relation between classes, it is this relation itself materialised in specific and determinate institutions; to be a productive worker is a major social misfortune and a political blessing; here the exit from the factory is located in the political; the encounter is with the organisation; the centrality of the worker is rediscovered and can start to function.

5. The various “questions” come and go. The question of the working class remains. The role, the import, the place of the working class within a strategic outlook aimed at the exit from capitalism, it cannot be undervalued without paying a heavy price: loss of the path to power and the reduction of mass movements to struggles without classes. Every time, at every tactical step, we must grasp the specificity of the question of the working class, the concrete mode in which, here and now, it presents itself and asserts itself. It is difficult not to see that the heart of the problem is today in the relation worker-politics, working class-State. Everything else revolves around this: the altered composition of the classes, the shifting boundaries between the classes, the major theme of social control, - how to hold together and reunify a disintegrating society, – organisation and movement, new spontaneity of collective subjects and new control over corporate and reactionary pressures. The forms taken by the question of the working class appear today for us in an original and modern fashion. So we must grasp them, or the centrality of the worker will not explode into life.

6. The problems must come before their solutions. When the solutions come before the problems, it is an ideological trap. There is a social-democratic, nowadays paleocapitalist,  ideology of shared management. And there is the left socialist, but also veteran communist, ideology of self-management. They are two versions of the centrality of the worker we would do well to consign to the “tradition” of the workers’ movement: the “economistic” one of participation in the business, the “politicistic” one of industrial democracy. Behind the first is an unrealistic ideological conception of profit, behind the second an unrealistic/ideological conception of work. We will only be able to proclaim the end of the class struggle when capitalism redistributes the product of development. When it has to exit the crisis, it must be made to pay a political price. You cannot mobilise the working class with a programme of socialising losses. The homo-entrepreneur of the State and the political producer are myths of the 1920s, postrevolutionary figures that predate the Great Depression. The transformation of the State has involved the centrality of the worker and has disrupted it, but it has not displaced it. There was a process of the political rationalisation of productive labour. There is no longer any space for ideological readings, from the left or the right.

7. The third way doesn’t interest us. One must therefore look elsewhere. Might the representation of the centrality of the worker somehow exist? Is the moment of political mediation involved, how is it involved, in the worker-power relation? Can one skip the level of political institutions? And does the moment of struggle fall into the void, when it skips this level, or when it tries to traverse it? There is an empirical understanding not so much of corporate profit, as of the total profit of capitalist society, which must in effect be reconquered. This is the primary spring of any serious workers’ struggle. Not understanding this means insisting on making struggles walk on their heads, a sort of political idealism that is ill-suited to mobilising, organising, guiding the movement. But at the same time there is a need to recompose a strategic vision of the relation between development and the crisis of capitalism, the possibility of using capitalism’s secondary contradictions, a national and international consciousness of all the problems of the social worker –indirectly productive alongside marginalised non-labour – seen with workers’ eyes. This cannot happen if not from within the political terrain and with an already acquired, gained and truly, profoundly conquered mentality of government. The problem is not one of counterpower, but that of power: who has it, who must have it.

8. There is no political centrality of the working class without the role of the party. The modes, forms, figures of this role are all up for discussion. The party in the factory and in the State is an original path of transition to be fully experimented with. Provided that the scientific concept of the factory stands firm – not the department, not the company, not the enterprise, but the relations of production – and the scientific concept of the State is recovered – not the judge’s robe as abstract law, not the false choice between constitutionalism [garantismo] and repression, not the machine on one side and the political class on the other the two of which never meet, but the control of the economic cycle from the point of the government of the political system. And here, between factory and government, between work and politics, in a thread running through the entirety of the social, from the heart of production to the brain of the State, it is here that we can locate the point of equilibrium and the union’s room for movement. Anything other than retreating and declining, this space grows and today for this reason it is more difficult than ever to hold it all together. The exit from the factory into the social is the way that the union must pass through, with all its tools. The social worker has diverse interests within him, unity lies in the total management of the major problems of the society. The attempt is underway. The outcome is uncertain. Much depends on how the centrality of the worker meets the political.

9. Here it is not a matter of forcing the self-expansion of the logic of an argument. It is a matter of eliminating specious problems and putting real ones in their place. This is the premise that makes the subsequent articulation of the debate possible. The question is this: how do we develop, how do we advance working-class interest on the terrain of capitalist political institutions?