Organization and Obliteration

Mario Tronti’s Workers and Capital

Autonomist workers at a political event.

Autonomist workers at a political event.

THE ENGLISH TRANSLATION OF Workers and Capital BEGINS WITH A FOREWORD FROM STEVE WRIGHT, probably the most well-known English-language historian of Italian “workerism”, though neither Wright nor Tronti particularly enjoy the brusque directness of translating operaismo this way.See Wright, Steve. Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism. London: Pluto Press, 2002.

Wright’s intro establishes the lay of the land: the context and social history of Italian communism after the war, Tronti’s preference for Galvano della Volpe over the usual lodestar, Antonio Gramsci, Tronti’s relationship to the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI). It’s all fine but rather boring, exactly the type of intro a historian of a subject gets asked to write by a publisher like Verso for a book like this. I’m going to ignore it. If you’re here for a “Tronti in his time” essay, go read Wright’s intro.

That said, the history of the Italian Left in the 60s and 70s is interesting, rather tortured, and somewhat incomprehensible (due to both a lack of online radical history that isn’t curated by and a general lack of translations into English). As Rafaelle Sbardella remarks in Viewpoint Magazine, “[t]he workerist legacy is buried in the rubble of a cataclysmic defeat; there is much work still to be done simply to unearth its ruins”.Raffaele Sbardella. “The NEP of Classe Operaia (1980).” Viewpoint Magazine (blog), January 28, 2016.

But there is no need to become a historian of Autonomia—in fact, to do so would be facetious, or even bourgeois. “A history of industry cannot be conceived other than as a history of the capitalist organization of productive labour, and thus as a working-class history of capital”,Mario Tronti, Workers and Capital (New York: Verso, 2019), 243.

Tronti writes, and also notes that “[w]ords, however you choose them, always strike you as something bourgeois. But that is how things are”.Ibid, xxiii.

Reading from the present day, it becomes clear that he insists we recognize that history continues on, grinding moments to dust, piling up trash at the angel’s feet and all that. Dissolving this attachment to history—and all history is simultaneously a history of both the working class and capital in union—is our first strategic job to do. Not in the sense of being ahistorical, but in the sense that one “has to engage with Marx not in his time, but in our own. Capital should be judged on the basis of the capitalism of today”.Ibid, 3.

The parts where Workers and Capital shines, and what the essays are intended to accomplish, are when it addresses working class strategy and tactics. If the working class is the subject of history, and thereby transhistorical (and Tronti definitely follows Lukács et al on this point) then so must be its battle plans.

But this also forces the reader to reckon with what it means to be sitting here, in the cities of the Euro-Amerikan core, holding this book in the first place,or as in my case, reading the ebook on my computer. The Tronti that wrote Workers and Capital (who is not the current-day Tronti by any means, more on that at the end) would be rather annoyed by Verso’s exhumation of his essays. We are so far from operaismo’s Italy—its militancy, its political economy, and its enemy in social democracy. Parts of it may appeal to us: there is a macabre fetish for an Umwelt which can obsess over theoretical issues with practical problems outside of the university and the reading group. But Tronti warns: “we are against the present society, but that does not mean that we are for the world of the past”.Ibid, xx.

There is no running back the clock. If Marxism exists today as a material force in the aforementioned Euro-Amerikan core, it is entirely comprised of factions swearing differing historiographic fealty to esoteric models of revolutionary moments that almost kinda worked. 1917, 1933-36, 1956, 1968, 1977, 1990, 2008, whatever. This is what makes Workers and Capital, as well as the best of operaismo more broadly, essential: it tells us to look away from all that. The past is useless and the future is stupid. “No worker who is fighting against a boss is going to ask, ‘And then what?’ The fight against the boss is everything”.Ibid, xxiv.

I do not intend to say that historical analysis must be minimized, rather that it must be reconsidered in its efficacy for the working class and the working class alone. The entirety of this book is an inquiry into “possible working-class uses” as the next step beyond simple-absolute bourgeois cognition.Ibid, 243.

This means a huge amount of what passes for ‘leftist’ or ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’ history is functionally useless, a fact that isn’t surprising but can be rather nice to hear confirmed. It’s insipid to ask if the dialectic is in motion when instead we should ask why. For the working-class as Tronti conceives of it—as the class-in-and-for-itself, continuity in the class interest is all that matters—over and above universal historical categories like past/present/future.

Of this overarching continuity, Tronti identifies different tendencies: “[t]he continuity of the struggle is a simple matter; the workers need only themselves, and the boss facing them. But continuity of organisation is a rare and complex thing: as soon as organisation is institutionally formalised, it is immediately used by capitalism or by the workers’ movement on capitalism’s behalf.” This lesson bears out today in an even more perverse sense (don’t call it a farce). To fetishize history is not just a theoretical doldrum but a practical one too. Look no further than the recent explosion of unionization into white collar fields like finance, journalism, academia. Why a union? Why now? Is it because the union is the most powerful weapon of class warfare ever fabricated, or is it due to a fundamental lack of imagination which only thinks in forms that are centuries old? Why is even the whisper of communism rammed through the historical reductio ad absurdum and thus negated at its source?

In five years time, will we all be in a union? Maybe. But it won’t matter. This is precisely Tronti’s point: the creation of working-class edifice may begin auspiciously but always ends within capitalist control. So of course unionization today is necrophilia. Capital will not be buried under a proliferation of unions unless those unions endeavor to bury capital, unless those unions are a living manifestation of the organization of the working class. Being in a union is better than not being in one, of course. The same goes for the parties which were never the vanguard but cryptkeepers, keeping the light on throughout the long “fin de siècle” (lol). The revolution isn’t happening in the VICE union or in the DSA Brooklyn happy hour. But what is there to do when there isn’t a factory to distribute leaflets in front of, as Tronti describes the early operaisti doing?

To become revolutionary, the concept of the working class itself needs to be once again reignited—we need to once again notice ourselves in history, and in this sense, the unions are a first step. To progress further, a theoretical period of constitutive reflection is required. The proletariat needs its own “laws of development”, just as capital does, and it needs its own history, but this history is not one of events but of the increasing refinement of its theoretical and practical weaponry, less a manuscript than a knife slowly being honed.

Tronti offers a critical point of departure that is worth discussing in his essay “Lenin in England”. The majority of the essay, as elsewhere, paints a rosy picture. Tronti is convinced that the organization of the Italian proletariat is poised on the cusp of new revolutionary activity. His descriptions provoke envy, but we must remember that they’re afterimages. But descriptive vaingloriousness aside, “Lenin in England”’s major contribution is to obliterate the methodical error of both Marxist and bourgeois historical thought. Tronti tells us we’ve been doing history itself all wrong. To see the world as “capitalist development first and workers second”, he writes, “is a mistake”Ibid, 65.

—instead, “the victorious dragon [is] chasing a fleeing Saint George”.Ibid, 333.

So, once again, we return to the question of organization, or of labor as self-aware. Maybe the union is outmoded because it is so fractured, Tronti muses. Capital is organized and unified on a planetary scale—but the working-class, obviously, suffers from “the absence of corresponding institutional levels”.Ibid, 67.

Solidarity in one’s field, jobsite, backyard, etc. must be expanded to global proportions, with the creation of necessary mutations and interstitial forms along the way. This is not to say that the working-class must answer the Enlightenment adjudication for perpetual peace, but rather that there must be an international idea of proletarian partisanship.

This is where Workers and Capital becomes bigger than Italy in the middle of the 20th century, bigger even than Tronti’s assertion that with the party-organization in Italy they will “overthrow all Europe!”Ibid, xxxi.

His intent is to raise the working-class to a level at which it can truly go to war with capital. This is found in the concept of the social factory (which makes the whole world a theater of class warfare), his continuous return to the social and therefore unavoidable character of labor, the strategy of refusal as passive operations, etc.

By way of a postscript, Tronti’s demand that we turn from history works out well for him. I didn’t know he was still alive when I started writing this essay. Turns out, he’s not doing much besides (no joke) getting into Tai Chi with his daughter and periodically swiping from Bifo Berardi’s fatalist routine in interviews when he’s not running for the Italian Senate. In this light, Workers and Capital is a document of a developed working-class movement that would soon be torn apart by factors way beyond what we could discuss here. But the final disintegration is still ongoing—in the post-operaismo turn to social democracy, to centrism, to fatalism, and so on. Its bright lights are now celebrated reactionaries. Antonio Negri, once thrown “in prison for being an intellectual”, now cowrites e-pamphlets on Occupy; Bifo Berardi is the prancing marionette of the rictus-grinned White Army Brooklyn miserabilists at e-flux/Sternberg; Tronti can merely sigh deeply about his failures. If operaismo’s corpse is still with us, Verso’s publication of Workers and Capital attempts to put it in drag. With this book, we have a document that makes operaismo’s subsumption complete.

KEVIN ROGAN is a former architect and current designer, professor and researcher in New York City. Follow them @kvnrogan.