This is an excerpt from Haider and Mohandesi’s article in Viewpoint, originally published September 27, 2013.

The influence of Castoriadis, Lefort, Mothé and others from Socialisme ou Barbarie was quite apparent in the Italy of the early 1960s. Toni Negri, for instance, recalls how Socialisme ou Barbarie, “the journal that Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Lefort published in Paris,” became “my daily bread in that period.”1

Direct links, in fact, had already been established. In 1954 Danilo Montaldi, who had earlier been expelled from the Italian Communist Party (PCI), translated “The American Worker,” not from the original English, but from the French translations that appeared in Socialisme ou Barbarie. He traveled to Paris that year, meeting the militants of Socialisme ou Barbarie and initiating an exchange with none other than Daniel Mothé, whose diary he would later translate into Italian. Montaldi would maintain these connections, returning to Paris in 1957, and again in 1960, to strengthen ties with Castoriadis, Lefort, and Edgar Morin, among others.2

Montaldi not only played an indispensable role in the transmission of the ideas of Socialisme ou Barbarie into the Italian context, he put them into practice, conducting his own brand of workers’ inquiry. These practically unprecedented investigations, which relied on a plurality of methods, from narrative to sociological inquiry to oral history, resulted in a series of highly influential publications: “Milan, Korea,” an inquiry into southern immigrants living in Milan, Autobiografie della leggera, and finally Militanti politici di base.

Montaldi proposed an entirely different way of seeing things. The objective of inquiry was to uncover the everyday struggles of the working class, independently of all the official institutions that claimed to represent it. Yet as Sergio Bologna recalls, Montaldi’s careful histories rejected mythical tributes to spontaneity, opting instead for rich descriptions of “microsystems of struggle,” the political cultures of resistance that made seemingly spontaneous movements possible.3 This new focus on buried networks and obscured histories would have tremendous ramifications.

In addition to his own investigations, Montaldi organized a group in Cremona called Gruppo di Unità Proletaria. Lasting from 1957-1962, it brought together a number of young militants, all united by their desire to discover the working class as it really was, beyond the frigid world of party cards. One of these young militants was Romano Alquati.

Alquati, trained as a sociologist, would be a pivotal figure in the formation of the journal Quaderni Rossi, the initial encounter of heterodox militants from the Italian Socialist Party and the Italian Communist Party which would found operaismo, or “workerism.” Quaderni Rossi began with a debate over sociology, whose use by the bosses had yielded new forms of labor management and discipline, but had also generated invaluable information about the labor process. While a critical Marxist appropriation of sociology was on the agenda, its relation to Montaldi’s workers’ inquiry was not entirely clear. Some in Quaderni Rossi – the “sociologist” faction surrounding Vittorio Rieser – believed that this new science, though associated with bourgeois academics, could be used as a basis for the renewal of the institutions of the workers’ movement. Others, including Alquati, felt sociology could only be, at best, an initial step towards a specifically militant collaboration between researchers and workers, a new form of knowledge which would be characterized as “coresearch.”4

Alquati’s inquiries would prove to be fundamental in the development of workerism’s economic analysis. Steve Wright has brilliantly traced the break which can be observed between Alquati’s “Report on the ‘New Forces,’” a study of FIAT published in the first issue of Quaderni Rossi in 1961, and the 1962 study of Olivetti. In the first text, along with the two others published that year on FIAT, Alquati operates, interestingly enough, within the problematic established in Socialisme ou Barbarie.5 The “new forces” at FIAT were the younger generation, brought in to work the recently installed machinery that had deskilled more experienced professional workers. Management imposed hierarchies within the workforce – a division of labor separating technicians and skilled workers from the majority, along with divisive pay scales. But this process of rationalization was subject to the contradictory irrationality Castoriadis had described; and it gave rise to forms of “invisible organization” resulting from the fact that management was constrained to give executants responsibility while at the same time trying to repress their control. Alquati also drew political conclusions reminiscent of his French precursors: the workers were unconvinced by the reformism of the official workers’ movement, and instead expressed interest in workers’ management, in an end to the alienating process of work.

Alongside Alquati’s text in the inaugural issue of Quaderni Rossi, Ranziero Panzieri, the founder of the review, published a highly influential article called “The Capitalist Use of Machinery: Marx Against the Objectivists.” Written after Alquati’s “Report,” it reflected on the themes raised by Alquati, referring throughout to the workers “studied in the present issue of Quaderni Rossi,” while pushing towards a new framework. Panzieri, who had not only written the introduction to the Italian edition of Mothé’s diary, but was also the Italian translator of the second volume of Capital, was not prepared to drop Marx’s language in favor of that of directors and executants:

the worker, as owner and seller of his labour-power, enters into relation with capital only as an individual; cooperation, the mutual relationship between workers, only begins with the labour process, but by then they have ceased to belong to themselves. On entering the labour process they are incorporated into capital.6

For Panzieri, the means by which this incorporation took place was machinery, in the passage from manufacture to the developed level of large-scale industry. Citing Marx’s remark that in the capitalist factory, “the automaton itself is the subject, and the workers are merely conscious organs,” Panzieri’s target was the labor bureaucracy’s enthusiasm for technological development.7 According to this orthodox position, technological development represented a transhistorical force, determining the progressive movement through modes of production. To drive down the Italian road to socialism, the Italian worker would have to submit to the automatons in the automobile factories.8

It is significant that while Panzieri made many of the same historical observations as Castoriadis, he defended them as discoveries internal to Marx’s theory. The same went for the rising standard of living. According to Panzieri, “Marx foresaw an increase not just of the nominal but also of the real wage”: “the more the growth of capital is rapid, the more the material situation of the working-class improves. And the more the wage is linked to the growth of capital, the more direct becomes labour’s dependence upon capital.”9 For this reason, though now in agreement with Castoriadis, Panzieri considered wage struggles a function of the unions’ bureaucratic incorporation of labor into capital; only by directly attacking capital’s control and replacing it with workers’ control could technological rationality be subjected to “the socialist use of machines.” Indeed, for Panzieri, Quaderni Rossi’s inquiries showed that the workers were already coming to this view. However, he still warned against drawing any directly political conclusions: “The ‘new’ working-class demands which characterize trade-union struggles (studied in the present issue of Quaderni Rossi) do not directly furnish a revolutionary political content, nor do they imply an automatic development in that direction.”

When Alquati’s own investigations turned from FIAT to Olivetti – from a factory that made cars to one that made calculators and typewriters – he was able to draw on and build upon Panzieri’s analysis of technology. In the title “Organic Composition of Capital and Labor-Power at Olivetti,” Alquati definitively brought the discourse of workers’ inquiry back into the language of Marxist economic analysis, and implicitly suggested a new concept: class composition.

While the seeds of class composition can be already observed in the “Report on the ‘New Forces,’” insofar as Alquati attempted to describe the material existence of the working class, its behaviors and forms of interactions and organization, the earlier inquiry had treated machinery purely as a means by which directors reduced workers to executants. Deskilling was simply a way to break the will of the executants, and new machinery an instrument in this process. Now, in the inquiry at Olivetti, the increasing organic composition of capital was seen from the working-class viewpoint as the recomposition of labor-power, the transformation of the very forms of worker cooperation. Technology, in this sense, represented the field in which the social relations of class were embedded, but as part of a dynamic process in which the conflict between the extraction of surplus value and workers’ insubordination shaped the process of production. Directors were not mere parasites; while it was true that executants informally organized their concrete labor, the function of management was to plan and coordinate this labor within the valorization process. Workers’ struggles would have to articulate forms of political organization that responded to this technological recomposition, and in this context self-management would no longer be adequate – except as the workers’ self-management of the struggle against the capital relation.

If these inquiries resulted in the beginnings of a new scientific problematic, and an enthusiastic embrace of new forces, then inquiry turned out to be more politically divisive than the participants had realized. After the riots of Piazza Statuto in 1962, when workers attacked the offices of the Unione Italiana del Lavoro (UIL) in Turin, Quaderni Rossi would be torn apart by internal disagreements.10 While Tronti, Alquati, Negri, and others believed that this represented a new phase of the class struggle, an opportunity to break with the increasingly untenable strategy of collaboration with the unions, Panzieri saw it as a political impasse. Unconvinced that autonomous workers’ struggles could advance a lasting organizational form – even if the form of the unions had been exhausted – Panzieri thought that a renewed emphasis on inquiry and sociological research would be required before any movement could emerge.

This political difference was, significantly, also a theoretical one. At an editorial meeting at the end of 1963, Panzieri remarked that an essay of Tronti’s was

for me a fascinating resume of a whole series of errors that the workers’ Left can commit in this moment. It is fascinating because it is very Hegelian, in the original sense, as a new way of re-living a philosophy of history. It is precisely a philosophy of history of the working class. One speaks, for example, of the party, but in that context the concept of the party cannot be deduced or forced in; one can only deduce the self-organisation of the class at the level of neo-capitalism.11

In January of the following year, this essay would launch the new journal Classe Operaia, formed by Tronti’s faction. His controversial essay would famously announce, in the lines which have now become the inescapable catchphrase of workerism: “We too have worked with a concept that puts capitalist development first, and workers second. This is a mistake. And now we have to turn the problem on its head, reverse the polarity, and start again from the beginning: and the beginning is the class struggle of the working class.”12

In the fall of that year, the last of his life, Panzieri spoke at a Turin seminar called “Socialist Uses of Workers’ Inquiry,” alongside the “sociologist” faction that had remained with Quaderni Rossi. Here he argued for “the use of sociological tools for the political aims of the working class,” and in doing so presented a kind of counterpoint to “Lenin in England.” In his intervention, published the following year in Quaderni Rossi, Panzieri defended the anti-historicist character of inquiry, claiming that Marx’s Capital itself had the features of a sociological analysis:

In Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and other early writings the point of comparison is alienated being (“the worker suffers in his very existence, the capitalist in the profit on his dead mammon”) and the critique of political economy is linked to a historical and philosophical conception of humanity and history. However, Marx’s Capital abandons this metaphysical and philosophical outlook and the later critique is levelled exclusively at a specific situation that is capitalism, without claiming to be a universal anti-critique of the one-sidedness of bourgeois political economy.

Workers’ inquiry as a scientific practice had to be elaborated on this basis – by advancing its own one-sidedness in response. For Panzieri, Marxist sociology “refuses to identify the working class with the movement of capital and claims that it is impossible to automatically trace a study of the working class back to the movement of capital.”13

But what was the meaning of this one-sidedness? Panzieri had indicated his distaste for Tronti’s grandiose inversion, and this was indeed a pertinent criticism, presaging the increasing distance of workerist theory from the concrete practice of inquiry over the course of the 1960s and 1970s. However, Panzieri was unable to propose a new political approach; while he had tied the practice of inquiry to a Marxist economic analysis, he was unable to bring this theory to bear on the real political activity that was beginning to emerge, and which would characterize over a decade of class struggle to follow. Recently Tronti has reflected on this split:

Panzieri accused me of “Hegelianism,” of “philosophy of history.” This reading, and the accusation that underlies it, will often return; after all, Hegelianism was a real factor, it was effectively there, always had been; while this idea of a “philosophy of history” absolutely did not… Ours was not a theory that imposed itself from outside on real data, but the opposite: that is, the attempt to recover those real data, giving them meaning within a theoretical horizon.14

Indeed, workerism would, for its entire history, be tortured by the tension between “philosophy of history” and “real data”; this lives on in today’s “post-workerism.” But these are the risks taken by those whose eyes are on the “theoretical horizon.” It is important to note that Alquati, who did not share Panzieri’s views on the incompatibility of research and insurrection, split from Quaderni Rossi and joined Classe Operaia. His conception of inquiry was a militant and political one.

For this reason Tronti’s theoretical synthesis, in his 1965 essay “Marx, Labor-Power, Working Class,” has to be reexplored. This essay makes up the bulk of Workers and Capital (1966), with only a couple concluding sections translated into English. Unlike the rest of the book, which consists of articles written for Quaderni Rossi and Classe Operaia, this hitherto unpublished essay is a long and continuous argument, developed on the basis of Tronti’s Marxology and historical analysis. While this leads us to a certain digression, we believe it is the indispensable basis for rediscovering the theory of class composition that Alquati’s practice of inquiry suggested, while also developing this theory in a way that takes Panzieri’s warning seriously.

Though Tronti’s classical workerist inversion is widely known and cited, less is known about the process of theoretical elaboration that led to it. Throughout Workers and Capital the primacy of workers’ struggle is described as a strategic reversal which attempts to identify and advance the political character of Marx’s theoretical development, with the experience of 1848 and the political writings preceding the scientific economic analysis.15 In a sense, this represented a new object of inquiry. No longer was the goal, as it was for the Johnson-Forest Tendency or Socialisme ou Barbarie, to discover universal proletarian attitudes, or even the content of socialism, but to access a specifically political logic which emerged from the working-class viewpoint – a consequence of the difficult relation between strategy and science represented by Marx’s theoretical practice.

Despite what seems to be an affirmation of some purported working-class identity, Tronti did not seek to defend, in the manner of the Johnson-Forest Tendency and Socialisme ou Barbarie, the dignity of labor. On the contrary, the guiding principle of the “refusal of work” meant returning to Marx’s own critique of the ideology of the workers’ movement: “When Marx refused the idea of labor as the source of wealth and took up a concept of labor as the measure of value, socialist ideology was beaten for good, and working-class science was born. It’s no accident that this is still the choice” (222).16

Marx had tirelessly repeated that “labor is presupposed by capital and at the same time presupposes it in its turn” – in other words, the owner of capital presupposes labor-power, while labor-power presupposes the conditions of labor. On its own, Tronti wrote, “labor creates nothing, neither value nor capital, and consequently it cannot demand from anyone the restitution of the full fruit of what ‘it has created’” (222). But since socialist ideology had extended to new theories of labor and class, it would be necessary to “clear the field of every technological illusion” which tried to “reduce the productive process to the labor process, to a relation of the laborer to the instrument as such of his labor, as though it were an eternal relation of man with an evil gift of nature.” Just as treacherous was “the trap of the processes of reification,” which started with the “ideological lament” of machinery’s mortification of the worker and quickly moved to propose “the mystical cure for the class consciousness of this worker, as if it were the search for the lost soul of modern man” (203).

Instead, recognizing that the “working class is the point of historical departure for the birth and growth of capitalism,” Marx’s path was to “start from capital to arrive at logically understanding the working class” (230). Consequently, it was necessary to affirm that the capitalist viewpoint could attain the status of science. In fact, capitalist science would be superior to socialist ideologies, which were still trapped in the view that “only the working class, in particular in the persona of its representative officials, is the repository of real science (of real history etc.), and that this is the science of everything, the general social science also valid for capital.” It would be better to recognize that “in the reorganization of the productive process of a large factory, there is at least as much scientific knowledge as in the Smithian discovery of productive labor that is exchanged for capital” (172). To want to know more about capitalist society from the working-class viewpoint “than the capitalists themselves” was a “pious illusion,” and “every form of workers’ management of capital proves to be necessarily imperfect with relation to a directly capitalist management.” The workers’ path was not a perfected management, but destruction of capitalism by revolution. “So from the viewpoint of the capitalists,” Tronti argued, “it is completely correct to study the working class; only they are capable of studying it correctly. But the ideological smog of industrial sociology will not succeed in cancelling the death sentence that it represents for them” (230).

In this regard research from the working-class viewpoint would be distinct from capitalist sociology, since its findings would be oriented towards the organization of this destruction. This indicates the question of “political composition”; as Tronti wrote, “the theoretical research we have conducted on the concepts of labor, labor-power, working class, becomes nothing more than an exercise on the path to the practical discovery of a conquest of organization” (259). This specific line of research, which emerges from workers’ inquiry and, in the history of workerism, sometimes strays quite far from it, requires a separate investigation. For the time being, we will dwell on the concepts of labor, labor-power, and working class, insofar as they complement and systematize the findings of workers’ inquiry and the category of class composition.

Before even asking what it means to say that the working class drives capitalist development, we have to ask what it means to say class, and indeed this is the absolutely central question of Tronti’s theoretical elaboration. For Tronti the theory of class cannot be restricted to the point of production, and does not even necessarily begin there. Its exposition begins with Marx’s point in volume 2 of Capital: “The class relation between capitalist and wage-labourer is thus already present, already presupposed, the moment that the two confront each other in the act M-L (L-M from the side of the worker).”17 Indeed, Tronti will affirm that “for Marx it is beyond doubt that the class-relation already exists in-itself [an sich] in the act of circulation. It is precisely this which reveals, which brings out, the capitalist relation during the production-process” (149).18

His analysis pursues the lines of Marx which follow:

Money can be spent in this form only because labour-power is found in a state of separation from its means of production (including the means of subsistence as means of production of labour-power itself); and because this separation is abolished only through the sale of labour-power to the owner of the means of production, a sale which signifies that the buyer is now in control of the continuous flow of labour-power, a flow which by no means has to stop when the amount of labor necessary to reproduce the price of labour-power has been performed. The capital relation arises only in the production process because it exists implicitly in the act of circulation, in the basically different economic conditions in which buyer and seller confront one another, in their class relation.19

What can it mean that a theoretical tradition so known for its focus on the point of production starts with a theory not only of value, but of class, that is centered on exchange? Helmut Reichelt has commented on the choice faced for economic form-analysis between, on the one hand, labor as a “quasi-ontological category” which presents “substantialised abstract human labour as the substance of value”; and on the other hand, an account of the specifically capitalist social processes which constitute the “validity [Geltung]” of human activity as abstract labor, and the natural form of products as values – in other words, the determination of what is counted as labor in exchange.20 For Reichelt this is the basis of Marx’s advanced theory of value, and we can also observe Tronti following this thread: “Concrete labor realizes itself in the infinite variety of its use values; abstract labor realizes itself in the equality of commodities as general equivalents” (124).

In an adventurous reconquering of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts, against their humanist appropriation, Tronti argued that Marx’s early writings on alienation represented an initial and incomplete theory of abstract labor, arising from the separation characteristic of private property.21 But this account would only be truly developed in Capital. While for Castoriadis Capital amounted to little more than economic objectivism, it raised the fundamental question of the commensurability assumed in exchange – which, as Reichelt points out, is central to the “double character” of “the wealth of bourgeois society”: “a mass of a multitude of use-values that as homogenous abstract quantities can at the same time be aggregated into a social product.”22 The value relation is meant to explain the form of “equal validity” which allows different products to be rendered equivalent in exchange.23

A theory of class relations specific to capitalist society, then, cannot neglect to explain how the ability to work can possibly be part of a system of exchange: how labor-power can be exchanged for a wage, inserted into a system of circulation in which commodities are rendered equivalent according to their values. But this question can only be answered within the context of a historical analysis which opens onto the definition of class. Abstract labor is constituted in exchange, but the typical exchange of capitalism is money/labor-power; so how does this constitutive class relation arise, in which owners of money and owners of labor-power confront each other on the market, and what is its relation to the process of capitalist development?

For both Lefort and Castoriadis, relying on the Communist Manifesto, capitalism’s precondition was the bourgeois revolution. For Lefort, the bourgeoisie had to be understood as constituting “a homogeneous group with a fixed structure” which had “common interests and horizons”; the proletariat, on the other hand, reduced to its atomized economic functions, would have to unify itself through its struggle against the bourgeoisie.24 Capitalism represented the reshaping of society according to the bourgeoisie’s collective interest.

For Tronti, starting from the forms of generalized exchangeability characteristic of capitalism, such an account of the bourgeoisie was simply impossible. For a system in which the typical, defining exchange was money/labor-power, the starting premise had to be the constitution of a class with nothing to sell but labor-power, the free laborer constrained economically but not legally to sell labor-power in exchange for a wage. This, for Tronti, was the constitution of the proletariat: “the properly historical passage from labor to labor-power, that is from labor as slavery and service to labor-power as the sole commodity able to submit wealth to value, able to valorize wealth and thereby produce capital” (139). But the proletariat had to enter into exchange not with a class, but with individual capitalists, whose only “collective” interest was their shared drive to compete with each other:

The historical point of departure sees in capitalist society the workers on one side and the capitalist on the other. Here again is one of the facts which imposes itself with the violence of its simplicity. Historically we can speak of an individual capitalist: this is the socially determined figure which presides over the constitution of capitalist relations of production. As such, at least in the classical development of the system, this historical figure does not disappear, it is not suppressed or extinguished, but only organizes itself collectively, socializing itself so to speak in capital, precisely as the class relation. On the other hand we cannot speak of the isolated worker at any historical moment. In its material, socially determined figure, the worker is from his birth collectively organized. From the beginning the workers, as exchange values of the capitalist, come forth in the plural: the worker in the singular does not exist (232-3).

In this regard the individual capitalist persists, and continues to engage in the market exchange which characterizes capitalism. But the capitalist class is “always something else more or less than a social class. Something less, since direct economic interest has not ceased and perhaps will not cease to present itself as divided on the capitalist side. Something more, because the political power of capital now extends its apparatus of control, domination, and repression beyond the traditional forms taken by the State, to invest the whole structure of the new society” (233).

Once labor-power is exchanged for the wage, Tronti argues, introducing a terminological distinction into Marx’s categories, the proletariat is recomposed as working class: as labor-power which is cooperative, collective within the labor-process. This ongoing process of socialization of labor is the first source of relative surplus value; it will later require technological development for its further growth. Here Tronti develops the point implicitly suggested by Panzieri; but while the latter started with the individual worker whose labor-power was integrated into the factory plan, Tronti identifies a process of class recomposition.25 Between the proletariat and the working class Tronti sees “the same historical succession and the same logical difference as that which we have already found between the seller of labor-power and the producer of surplus value” (161).

The struggle for a normal working day, for Marx so fundamental in the logical exposition of relative surplus value, manifests the class struggle in terms which also framed the proletariat: the struggle to reduce a heterogeneous mass to the commodity labor-power, and the refusal to be reduced to it. This refusal is what drives capital to act in its collective interest; in this struggle capital constitutes itself politically as a class, which became an absolute imperative in the moment of 1848. Marx’s writings on 1848 show “the encounter and the superimposition of the abstract concept of labor with the concrete reality of the worker.” At this point, Marx could supplement his earlier, intuitive reflections on abstract labor with discovery of the peculiar characteristics of the labor-power commodity: “the labor-power commodity as working class” (161).

It was not enough, however, to conclude that waged workers first constituted themselves as a class when they became sellers of labor-power and were thus incorporated into capital. It was imperative not to “fix the concept of the working class in one unique and definitive form, without development, without history.” Just as the “internal history of capital” had to include “the specific analysis of the varied determinations assumed by capital in the course of its development,” against the easy transhistorical assumptions of a “historical materialist” teleology, an “internal history of the working class” would have to be “reconstruct the moments of its formation, the changes in its composition, the development of its organization according to the varied determinations successively assumed by labor-power as productive force of capital, and according to the experiences of different struggles, recurring and always renewed, with which the mass of workers equip themselves as the sole adversary of capitalist society” (149).

And indeed this account of the dynamic historical transformation and reconstitution of labor-power was required by the social relation of surplus value, and the unity of circulation with the process of production: “The history of diverse modes in which productive labor is extracted from the worker, that is, the history of different forms of production of surplus-value, is the story of capitalist society from the working-class viewpoint” (170). This is precisely because of the twofold character of labor, Marx’s most treasured discovery, in which both aspects were decisive. While one could not derive the abstract character of labor from the level of use-value and concrete labor – that is, this was not a matter of abstraction as a psychological effect of factory time-management – the valorization of value could not take place without the use-value of labor-power:

labor, the utilization of labor-power, is workers’ labor, a concrete deployment, a concretization of abstract labor – abstract labor which finds itself already in its turn reduced to the rank of commodity, and which realizes its value in the wage. Therefore the step where abstract labor overturns itself and takes the concrete form of the worker, is the process of consumption of labor-power, the moment where it becomes in action what it was only in potential, the step of the realization of the use-value of labor-power, if we may. What was already present in the operation sale/purchase as a class relation pure and simple, elementary and general, has definitively acquired from this point on its specific, complex, and total character (166).

This complex and total character is implied by the cooperative and collective form of the working class. Unless individual labor-powers are brought into association, they cannot “make valid [far valere], on a social scale, the special character of the labor-power commodity in general, that is to say cannot make abstract labor concrete, cannot realize the use-value of labor-power, whose actual consumption is the secret of the process of valorization of value, as a process of production of surplus-value and therefore of capital” (205).

Within this process we can glimpse the theoretical location of the concept of class composition: “The sale of labor-power thus provides the first elementary stage, the simplest, of a composition into a class of waged workers: it is for this reason that a social mass constrained to sell its labor-power remains the general form of the working class” (149). But this remains an elementary stage, since as Marx concluded in his chapter on the working day, “our worker emerges from the process of production looking different from when he entered it”; entering as seller of labor power (“one owner against another owner”), the worker leaves knowing that the production process is a relation of force, and that for protection “the workers have to put their heads together and, as a class, compel the passing of a law, an all-powerful social barrier by which they can be prevented from selling themselves and their families into slavery and death by voluntary contract with capital.”26 For Tronti this difference is “a political leap”: “It is the leap that the passage through production provokes in what we can call the composition of the working class or even the composition of the class of workers” (202).

We are now in a position to understand why the working-class struggle, for Tronti, comes first in the history of capitalist development. Capitalist development has to be understood as a process of exchange in which the valorization of value is driven by the sale and purchase of labor-power. It is only in the socialization of labor-power within the labor process that proletarians take the associated form of working class, in the realization of the use-value of their labor-power by the individual capitalist. And only the resistance of their reduction to the labor-power commodity can compel individual capitalists, who compete on the market, to form a cohesive class:

The particularity of labor-power as a commodity faced with other commodities coincides therefore with the specifically working-class character that the production process of capital takes on; and, inside of this, with the concentration of a working-class initiative in the class relation, that leads to a leap in the development of the working class and to the subsequent birth of a class of capitalists (166).

Within the context of this broad economic and historical theory, we are in a position to close the lengthy digression and return to workers’ inquiry. Workerism’s scientific discovery was to push the practice of inquiry away from the humanist problematic of experience towards a value theory which was able to reinterpret Marx’s critique of political economy and put it to use. It implied a political practice which affirmed shop floor passivity and wage struggles as expressions of a nascent power of refusal of work.

We can now understand that workers’ inquiry was an investigation into the composition of the working class, as the historical body which, separated from the means of subsistence and reduced to the sale of its labor-power, had to be formed into a socialized productive force within a process of constant expansion – the expanded reproduction of the class itself, and its recomposition in ever more technologically advanced labor processes.

To close this genealogy we described a significant moment of rupture, the discovery of a concept which opens new paths of scientific and political experimentation. But it was a theory which emerged from a specific historical moment. “We all have to be born some day, somewhere,” Althusser remarked, “and begin thinking and writing in a given world.”27 Tronti began with the hegemony of the factory to show how the class antagonism could be thought together with capitalism’s laws of motion, in a way that his predecessors had failed to do.28 Yet despite their theoretical underdevelopment, the Johnson-Forest Tendency had understood that proletarian life exists beyond the factory, that it encompasses a childhood in the cotton fields, afternoons in the kitchen. And just as feminists in Italy would challenge the hegemony of the factory as a masculine blindspot, Italian workerism would also have to respond to changes in capitalist development which they had not predicted: global economic crisis, the restructuring of production, and the decline of factory hegemony. Attempts to develop this theoretical problematic still have to respond to this historical challenge, and navigate around Panzieri’s warning – the risk of lapsing into a philosophy of history supported by the ontologization of labor.

Although the introduction of class composition identified capitalism with industrial labor, and the social world created by the postwar boom, at the same time it provided a method which could today be used to trace the constitution and transformation of labor-power in the context of uneven development and global crisis.29 Tronti confesses that his and his comrades’ fixation on the industrial working class now presents itself as an unresolved problem: “I have come to the conviction that the working class was the last great historical form of social aristocracy. It was a minority in the midst of the people; its struggles changed capitalism but did not change the world, and the reason for this is precisely what still needs to be understood.”30 We suggest that inquiry will be the first step in understanding.

  1. Cesare Casarino and Antonio Negri, In Praise of the Common (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2008), 54. 

  2. Danilo Montaldi, Bisogna sognare. Scritti 1952-1975 (Milano: Colibrì, 1994). 

  3. Sergio Bologna and Patrick Cuninghame, “For an Analysis of Autonomia – An Interview with Sergio Bologna,” available online at 

  4. Montaldi himself had believed that sociology, as Steve Wright recounts, “could help in the development of revolutionary theory”; see Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism (London: Pluto Press, 2002), 21-25. On the division within Quaderni Rossi, see Marta Malo de Molina, “Common Notions, part 1: workers-inquiry, co-research, consciousness-raising,” trans. Maribel Casas-Cortés and Sebastian Cobarrubias of the Notas Rojas Collective Chapel Hill, eicp (2006). Finally, for more on coresearch or conricerca, and the influence of both Montaldi and another of Alquati’s precursors, Alessandro Pizzorno, see Guido Borio, Francesca Pozzi, and Gigi Roggero, “Conricerca as Political Action” in Utopian Pedagogy: Radical Experiments Against Neoliberal Globalization, ed. Mark Coté, Richard J.F. Day, and Greig de Peuter (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007). 

  5. See Wright, Storming Heaven, 46-58; the texts themselves are collected in Romano Alquati, Sulla Fiat (Milano: Feltrinelli, 1975): “Relazione sulle ‘forze nuove.’ Convegno del PSI sulla FIAT, gennaio 1961”; “Documenti sulla lotta di classe alla FIAT”; “Tradizione e rinnovamento alla FIAT-Ferriere.” A partial translation of the 1962 text, “Organic Composition of Capital and Labor-Power at Olivetti,” is presented in this issue. For a very perceptive analysis of Alquati’s Olivetti text, and the trajectory of inquiry in general, see Wildcat, “The Renascence of Operaismo,” available online at 

  6. Raniero Panzieri, “The Capitalist Use of Machinery,” trans. Quintin Hoare, available online at 

  7. Marx, Capital, Volume 1, 544. 

  8. Since the further development of the orthodox position was that collaboration between the unions, the state, and the employers, represented the displacement of competition towards planning, and therefore a step towards socialism, Panzieri also made the argument that planning represented the necessary social extension of capital’s despotism in the factory. “The basic factor in this process is the continual growth of constant capital with respect to variable capital”; as machines grew more numerous than workers, capital had to exercise an “absolute control,” imposing its rationality of production upons workers, and through the growth of monopolies extending its plan “from the factory to the market, to the external social sphere” (“Capitalist Use of Machinery.”) This thesis would be the subject of Panzieri’s last major essay, “Surplus Value and Planning,” in issue 4 of Quaderni Rossi (translated by Julian Bees and available online at In this sense, while Panzieri’s argument represented a sophisticated theoretical advance and had a worthwhile political function, it also contained a certain reification of the features of postwar capitalism, and lost some of its clarity on the nature of capitalist exchange relations. Interestingly, this essay was followed in Quaderni Rossi with Marx’s so-called “Fragment on Machines” from the Grundrisse

  9. Panzieri, “Capitalist Use of Machinery.” 

  10. See Wildcat, “Renascence of Operaismo,” for some interesting comments on Piazza Statuto in the context of workers’ inquiry. 

  11. Quoted in Robert Lumley, “Review Article: Working Class Autonomy and the Crisis,” Capital and Class 12 (Winter 1980): 129; also discussed in Wright, Storming Heaven, 58-62. Lumley considers Tronti’s intervention to be “a theoretical and political regression”; as we will try to demonstrate below, we disagree with this assessment. 

  12. Mario Tronti, “Lenin in England,” available online at 

  13. Raniero Panzieri, “Socialist Uses of Workers’ Inquiry,” trans. Arianna Bove, eicp (2006). 

  14. Tronti, Noi operaisti, quoted in Adelino Zanini, “On the Philosophical Foundations of Italian Workerism,” Historical Materialism 18 (2010): 60. 

  15. Mario Tronti, Operai e capitale (Turin: Einaudi, 1966), 128, 179, 209-10, 220, 256. Translations from this text are ours, with the invaluable help of Evan Calder Williams, unless otherwise noted. We also profitably consulted the French translation by Yann Moulier-Boutang and Giuseppe Bezza, available online at Further references to the original Italian are given in the text. 

  16. Here of course Tronti recalls Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme

  17. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 2, trans. David Fernbach (London: Penguin, 1978), 115; Tronti quotes this passage in Operai e capitale, 144-5. 

  18. This is also quoted in Zanini, “Philosophical Foundations,” 50. Zanini’s is one of the few texts in English which addresses Tronti’s economic analysis. 

  19. Marx, Capital, Volume 2, 115; second sentence quoted by Tronti, Operai e capitale, 148-9. 

  20. Helmut Reichelt, “Marx’s Critique of Economic Categories,” trans. Werner Strauss and ed. Jim Kincaid, Historical Materialism 15 (2007): 11. It is worth noting that workerism was not always able to successfully navigate between the two; while Reichelt’s “quasi-ontological category” refers to the conception which understands abstract labor as expenditure of physiological energy, measurable in calories, workerism would at times be captivated by labor as the “living, form-giving fire,” which is at times suggested in Tronti’s assessment of the Grundrisse as “a more advanced book” than Capital. (Tronti, Operai e capitale, 210; translated in Murphy 339). The Grundrisse played an ambiguous role in the history of workerism, providing new theoretical energies while also obscuring the ruptures in Marx’s economic thought. Future research will have to draw these distinctions clearly, especially to move beyond the Grundrisse’s problematic of “capital in general”; see Michael Heinrich, “Capital in General and the Structure of Marx’s Capital,” Capital and Class 13:63 (1989). 

  21. This argument is presented throughout the introduction to the essay, pages 123-43, with attention to a range of Marx’s other early manuscripts. 

  22. Helmut Reichelt, “Social Reality as Appearance: Some Notes on Marx’s Conception of Reality,” trans. Werner Bonefeld, Human Dignity, eds. Werner Bonefeld and Kosmas Psychopedis (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), 40. Reichelt ends this article (65) with comments on the category of class which, in contrast to Tronti’s, do not manage to incorporate Marx’s close attention to the historical constitution of the proletariat, and its recomposition in the labor process. 

  23. Reichelt, “Marx’s Critique,” 22. 

  24. Lefort, “Proletarian Experience”; see also the somewhat different argument, which refers to waged labor and technological development alongside the bourgeois revolution, in Castoriadis, “Modern Capitalism and Revolution,” 259-60. 

  25. Compare to Raniero Panzieri, “Surplus Value and Planning”: “The relationship between the workers, their cooperation, appears only after the sale of their labour-power, which involves the simple relationship of individual workers to capital.” It is worth noting that while Panzieri’s 1964 account was based on the displacement of competition by planning, Tronti’s description of “the plan of capital” a year earlier in Quaderni Rossi had represented it as the highest level of development of the socialization of capital still mediated by competition, in the individual capitalist’s pursuit of profits higher than the average: “Individual enterprises, or entire ‘privileged’ productive activities, along with the propulsive function of the whole system, constantly tend to break from within the total social capital in order to subsequently re-compose it at a higher level. The struggle among capitalists continues, but now it functions directly within the development of capital.” Planning represented the extension of capital’s despotism to the state, not a new phase displacing competitive capitalism: “The anarchy of capitalist production is not cancelled: it is simply socially organized.” See “Social Capital,” available online at, and the original collected in Operai e capitale, 60-85. 

  26. Marx, Capital, Volume 1, 415-6. 

  27. Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (London: Verso, 1969), 74. 

  28. Introduced in “Factory and Society” in the second issue of Quaderni Rossi (1962), collected in Tronti, Operai e capitale, 39-59; see also Sergio Bologna, “The Factory-Society Relationship as an Historical Category,” available online at (translation of “Rapporto società-fabbrica come categoria storica,” Primo Maggio 2, 1974). 

  29. For an account of the workerist attempt to develop the theory of money and class composition in the context of the economic instability of the early 1970s, see Steve Wright, “Revolution from Above? Money and Class-Composition in Italian Operaismo” in Karl Heinz-Roth and Marcel van der Linden, ed., Beyond Marx (Leiden: Brill, forthcoming). 

  30. Mario Tronti, “Towards a Critique of Political Democracy,” trans. Alberto Toscano, Cosmos and History, 5:1 (2009): 74. 


Salar Mohandesi (@smohandesi)

Salar Mohandesi is a founding editor of Viewpoint and a postdoctoral fellow in History at Bowdoin College.

Asad Haider

Asad Haider is an editor of Viewpoint and author of Mistaken Identity: Anti-Racism and the Struggle Against White Supremacy (Verso, Spring 2018).