Steve Wright is a historian and the author of ‘Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism’ considered by many to be the most influential history of Italian workerism in the Anglophone world. In this interview with Notes from Below, Steve looks at the legacy and contemporary relevance of the ideas explored in his book.
Notes from Below: How did you first develop an interest in Italian workerism?
Steve Wright: Forty years ago I was an undergraduate in Melbourne who aspired to become a labour historian. Reading journals like Radical America and Telos, I stumbled across the likes of Sergio Bologna writing about the history of class struggles, and became intrigued with the interpretative framework being used by the workerists (or what could be tracked down in translation, at least). I also stumbled across materials from Red Notes concerning the Movement of ’77 and Autonomia, and became similarly intrigued with such politics.
Working over summer in a factory making canned and packaged soup had already thrown my council communist views into crisis – I realized that collectively self-managing a place like that was not the pinnacle of a better society, as I had previously believed. So I resolved to find out all that I could about workerism and politics in Italy, which then was very much overshadowed for English language readers like myself by the perspectives of Eurocommunism and its trotskyist critics. I realized pretty soon that I would need to learn how to read Italian, or at least how to read the dialect of left politics, sinistresse.
Meanwhile, many in the political circle to which I then belonged also became fascinated with Autonomia – the semiotext(e) dossier was a big hit amongst us at that time. I visited northern Italy in early 1982, collected as much printed material as I could, then spent a month in London poring over the things that Ed Emery of Red Notes had collected. Having managed to score a scholarship for a PhD, I went home in March and spent the next six years writing what would become the basis of the book Storming Heaven.
How would you summarise the important moments in the development of Italian workerism?
Workerism – which always contained a number of threads, some quite disparate – emerged out of a broader sensibility of disquiet concerning the inability of the mainstream left in Italy to understand how class politics had changed since the Second World War. Its particular shtick was to argue that capitalist development was a reaction to workers’ struggles, and to view the existing institutions of the left – parties and unions – in a fairly cold-blooded way. The existing institutions were considered not only as ‘structurally separate’ from the class itself, but as at best inadequate tools for an anti-capitalist project.
Much of the 1960s would then be taken up for the workerists with arguments as to whether the existing parties and unions could be salvaged, or had instead to be abandoned. In Italy, many of the student movement in the universities turned by the end of the decade towards the workplaces, which were themselves often in ferment by that stage. This encounter produced a number of new far left groups, one of which – Potere Operaio – was explicitly workerist in its ideology. For the next three years, workerist politics was less about learning new things, and more about applying the doctrine that had been developed during the previous decade. The failure of Potere Operaio to convince other revolutionaries that its goals and methods were suitable led ultimately not only to the group’s collapse, but also a rethinking of aspects of the workerist framework.
Some people headed off to the mainstream left, following other workerists who had already embraced the notion of ‘the autonomy of the political’; many others were attracted to a new wave of worker extremism, in which ‘autonomist’ workplace collectives turned their backs on the far left groups and sought to carve out a new project based directly in factories and communities. The appearance of so-called ‘new social movements’, starting with the women’s movement, saw a section of Italian feminists draw upon their own earlier involvement in workerist politics as one means to understand the circumstances around them; it also (eventually) pushed many of their male counterparts to begin to address aspects of the politics of reproduction.
Workerism as a branch of marxist theory connected to wider social struggles collapsed by the early 1980s, along with most of those struggles themselves – but it’s fair to say that it was already in crisis by the late 1970s, due to the seemingly growing complexity of revolutionary politics, which cast doubt over the certainties held a decade before. By the 1990s, something called ‘post-workerism’ – again composed of a range of threads – began to make a name for itself, especially outside Italy itself. While connections between post-workerism and workerism proper can easily be made, too often in my opinion they are blurred together (and in fact, today the former has largely come to overshadow the latter).
What is workers’ inquiry and what are the different ways it has been used?
The workers’ inquiry is a means of exploring the power relationships in a given workplace – less commonly, in a given community – as a way of learning how to subvert them. The starting premise as developed by the workerists and others with whom they collaborated in the early 1960s was that there was still much to be learned about class struggle in the workplace, especially as new generations of workers arrived there.
In other words, it was wrong to assume, as many other leftists did, that all workplaces governed by the capital relation were the same, and that everything important to know about workers and class conflict had already been learned and was unchanging over time and space. Typically it involved asking questions of workers, a practice conducted by militants ‘from the outside’, often working in turn with a few people ‘from the inside’.
While the workerists didn’t invent the workers’ inquiry – you can trace it back at least as far as Marx, although the versions that directly influenced the workerists came from a number of academic as well as political sources in the 1950s – it was a practice that became closely associated with workerism as a political tendency. A variety of “instruments” were used, from interviews to questionnaires, in a range of different ways: some fairly systematic, others quite ad hoc. For many of the workerists, the inquiry was a form of “co-research”, conducted on an equal footing by all those organising it; in its most radical form, co-research aspired to be a kind of workers’ “self-research”, as the workerist Romano Alquati once put it. And in fact the most impressive example of inquiry that I have come across was carried out by militants in the Italian banking sector, about twenty five years ago.
In practice, I think inquiry ended up playing something of a strange role in the history of Italian workerism, back in the 1960s and 1970s. It was meant to form the basis for the political perspectives of militants – helping them to understand where and how to intervene (and the notion of “intervening” carries a range of implications that were not always, at first, questioned as much as they could have been). But too often, there wasn’t a (re)iterative dimension to this: an inquiry might inform political practice for a while, but then only be revisited when the politics developed on its basis had gone into crisis. For example, during the history of Potere Operaio, I don’t think many inquiries were carried out, in large part because many members considered that since kind of work had already been performed in the 1960s, what needed to be learned had been absorbed, and all that mattered now was assembling enough bodies to implement what had been learned earlier – as if class conflict wasn’t itself a movable feast that needed to be reflected upon continually. On the other hand, some individuals who had collaborated earlier with the workerists, back in the 1960s, would continue to do interesting things on this front – one of them was Vittorio Rieser, and an interview with him translated into English can be found at the generation online website.
Another aspect of this was that many workerists began by the 1970s to realise that class conflict was more multi-faceted than they had earlier thought – that not only different generations of workers had to be taken into account, alongside different experiences of technology, but that somehow gender and ethnicity might also matter. In certain cases, again largely amongst the workerist femininists, there was a realisation that reproduction is no less important than production, or even more so. Alongside this, there was a need to make sense of how workers were dealing with capital’s efforts to restructure the labour process, and so break up the bases of power that had been consolidated in the immediate past. As a consequence, trying to make sense of what was learned through inquiry became more difficult than before, although equally what was discovered was often important.
What is class composition, and why did the concept need to be developed?
Understanding the composition of the working class – how it was divided by capital, and how to overturn those divisions, and/or turn them against capital – was the primary aim behind conducting workers’ inquiries as conceived by the workerists.
By the end of the 1960s, the theoretical apparatus of class composition had been more fully fleshed out, particularly by Romano Alquati and then Sergio Bologna. There have always been different understandings amongst the workerists as to what the term entailed, but one of the most common was that the political thrust of the working class against capital was both somehow connected to the structure of the labour process, but also could not be completely reduced to that. In a system where craft workers were central to the economy, it was not surprising that an understanding of socialism as self-management would emerge, not that in a system underpinned by assembly lines, the idea of self-management would find little resonance.
Class composition in the late 1960s was crude but effective, at least in the short term, giving the workerists important insights into the needs and desires of the “mass workers” employed on assembly lines in big factories like FIAT. Soon, however, the more thoughtful workerists began to realize that class composition was more nuanced than they had earlier believed, and that (for example), perhaps the unwaged sectors of the class had to be addressed more seriously than had been the case before. Many of the debates of the late 1970s, therefore, were around this question – for example, between Bologna and Toni Negri – especially as the workerists tried to understand how to incorporate the struggles of women (both in the paid workforce and outside it) and/or workers in smaller factories or in offices into their analysis. Storming Heaven tries to provide an overview of these debates, or at least their broad contours, as well as the political implications that arose from them.
How strong do you think the parallels are between the situation which gave rise to class composition analysis in Italy in the 1950s and the global north today?
I don’t think the specific materials conditions are really comparable: there was a different model of accumulation to start with, a kind of Keynesianism centred on building a consumer durables sector and a relative surplus value strategy in which wage growth could be tolerated or even encouraged, so long as it didn’t outstrip productivity. The picture in the North today instead is one where both accumulation strategies and class composition have been reconfigured, in large part due to defeats from the 1980s onwards. Perhaps the central parallel that does exist now as then is that of a crisis of “the left” – whatever that means – in terms of its understanding of how to address this in a manner that subverts capital.
In between the 1950s and now, we have seen both the rise of so-called “new social movements” and a new cycle of accumulation – or maybe, not a new cycle, but some sort of interregnum – based on both speculation and the ruthless externalization of costs. The challenges of developing a new class composition analysis are immensely greater, and there is currently little consensus amongst those who are explicitly trying to advance that kind of analysis.
What do you think are the key lessons we can learn from the history of Italian workerism for our contemporary situation?
To be clear, a number of these “lessons” were learned only in hindsight, as a consequence of mistakes made. But in my mind there are four: a) that in the collective process of trying to develop political sensibilities, the sphere of reproduction is as crucial as that of production; b) that since the concrete form assumed by the capital relation changes in time and space, the possibility of abolishing it depends on being able – again collectively – to read and subvert the specific ways in which “those with nothing to sell but their labour power” (whether or not they are able in fact to sell that commodity) have been subordinated to it. On this score, it is worth revisiting the workerist analyses of class composition (including the specific concepts they used along the way, such as technical composition), even if the workerist tradition can hardly supply all the tools needed.
c) as part of such an analysis, there needs to be a better understanding of the role of politically-motivated minorities within class politics. The potential of militants to act as both enablers and obstacles to class self-organisation against capital was under-theorised in workerism – but then, it has been under-theorised in too many strands of self-defined revolutionary politics […] ; d) that however tempting, or even seemingly necessary as a way to forestall capital’s efforts to divide the class still further, efforts to “force the pace” of class struggle on the part of militants always end in disaster – the overall history of both Potere Operaio and Autonomia are testimonies to that, even if many circles within both tried to formulate a more reasoned approach to the matter.
Italian workerism developed out of the figure of the ‘mass worker’, whose revolts against the assembly line were a driving force for the entire class. Can we speak of an analogous ‘class figure’ today, and where would we find it? Where is our FIAT Mirafiori?
For me, one of the most important lessons from the workerism of the 1960s and 1970s is that looking for “a driving force” within the class is a mindset fraught with danger, above all when other layers – typically, starting with the unwaged – are meant to follow its lead, or even subsume their own needs and desires in the process. In many ways, the feminist critiques within workerism emerged precisely around this matter in the early 1970s, and those debates are well worth revisiting today.
One of the starting points of Quaderni Rossi – a journal from which workerism emerged more than fifty years ago – was to look for class antagonisms within the most “advanced” sectors of capitalist development. In that context, “advanced” meant a number of things: centrality to the current cycle of accumulation, a higher than average organic composition of capital, the application of the latest fads in management think, the use of the “newest” technology. Massimiliano Tomba, along with many others, has argued quite convincingly (for me, at least), that this notion of “advanced” is far from useful: for one thing, it is unable to comprehend how supposedly by-gone forms of exploitation can be and today are interwoven with capitalist practices that are deemed “cutting edge”.
On a related thread: someone with more patience than me also might find it useful to go back through the experience of workerism and make sense of the ways in which it converges with certain accelerationist notions. A friend drew my attention to a few sentences in Tronti’s book Workers and Capital: “From the working class point of view, capital’s contradictions must be neither refused nor resolved; they must be utilized. And in order to be utilized, they must be exasperated”. It’s a great line (and that book is full of great lines), but along with being ambiguous (while an anti-statist reading is possible, Tronti’s way of “exasperating” things was via the Communist party’s entry into the state apparatus), I doubt it is actually “true”.
What are the major new developments of class composition analysis that have emerged since the first edition of Storming Heaven?
Here is where, if I haven’t already, I’m going to make a fool of myself – because I’m not so sure that many people have been engaged in class composition analysis over the last fifteen or twenty years, at least in a form that has recognizable connections to the Italian debates of the 1960s and 1970s. The notions of the precariat or of immaterial labour had already emerged in the 1990s, and not much new has been added since then, at least by anyone explicitly influenced by workerism as opposed to post-workerism, which I would argue constitutes a fundamental break with that earlier period. Nor do I think that either precariat or immaterial labour are very useful notions, in any case.
There has been important work done about migration and about reproduction as well, but again, how much that is recognizable as class composition analysis, I have my doubts (so I’m sure this is where someone will correct what I have baldly asserted). I still believe something is salvageable from the analyses of 1970s, but I also believe that a lot can be learned from the approaches being developed by people working from a world systems perspective, such as Jason W. Moore or Beverly Silver, as well as current discussions around social reproduction.
We’ve heard that you’re currently doing research on the use of print media in the Italian New Left. At Notes from Below, we’ve been involved in the production and distribution of workers’ bulletins. What are the lessons of that research for today? Would you say there is a link between class composition and the role of this media? For example: Mario Tronti spoke of how the stage of the class struggle in early ‘60s Italy necessitated a move “away from the Leninist conception of the working class newspaper.”
I’d be interested in hearing about the bulletins you’ve been involved with, and how you measure their effectiveness. I would argue that working with print media – reading it, distributing it, or (less often) writing it – has long been central to political practice, but that this kind of “document work” is so much taken for granted that it doesn’t always receive the reflection that it deserves. This has implications both for the nature of political activity, as well as the subjects with whom efforts are being made to establish a dialogue. Anyone who has been active in a far left group knows all about paper sales, for example: but the extent to which, in some groups at least, that paper selling is a kind of “busy work” intended to keep militants’ minds off other matters, is worth discussing at times.
Beyond that, different kinds of publications have their own particular strengths and weaknesses – there was an instructive debate within Russian social democracy in the late 19th century as to be importance or otherwise of leaflets designed to agitate around particular demands in the workplace, as opposed to forming worker militants meeting in study circles and learning from books. During the 1980s and 1990s, personal computers and cheap printers made it possible to produce leaflets that looked very professional; a generation before, the leaflets produced on roneo machines were a lot scrappier, but they still made it possible for a group of people without much money to produce a lot of printed material in a short space of time, which was vital for the workerists and others in their factory-oriented agitation.
How have the internet and social media changed these practices for better or worse? Some of what for me are useful experiences at the moment, like Angry Workers of the World, utilise both online and hard copy print media – it would be instructive to hear their thoughts on the place today of printed communication within workplace and community organising. Another experience worth revisiting in a critical manner is the circle that produced Processed World during the 1980s, aimed at turning the “bad attitude” of fellow office workers into a collective force – the journal that they produced was not at all a typical leftist publication, and was all the better for it.
*This interview was first published on Notes from Below.