Italian theoretical and political movement, operaismo was fundamentally active during the 60s and the beginning of the 70s. In an epoch where the worker movement in crisis was dominated by excessively “ideological” debates, operaismo was characterized essentially by proposing a “return to the working class”. It is characterized by :
1) A method. “We too have considered in first place capitalist development, and only afterward the workers struggles. This is an error. It is necessary to invert the problem, change the sign, and begin again : and the beginning is the struggle of the working class.” (M. Tronti, p105). As such, not only is class struggle the motor of history, but rather, above all, the relation is asymmetric. It is the movement, always visible, of the working class that explain those of capital and of capitalist society, and not the inverse.
This abstract idea acquires its meaning with the introduction of the concept of class composition. The working class is not a mythological notion, but rather a historically constructed whole. Technical composition : analysis of the labor process, of the technology, not in sociological terms but rather as sanction of the relations of force between classes. Example : fordism and taylorism embody the principle of eliminating the resistance of the workers and their unions imposing a new type of work. It makes sense, then, to analyze in detail the labor process, its modifications, in order to understand what “class struggle” means : there has never been more Marxist “evidence”. Political composition : inside the working class certain fractions play a minor political role. The working class is not content with reacting to the dominion of capital, it is immersed continually in the process of political recomposition, and capital is obliged to respond with a continual restructuration of the labor process. It makes sense, as such, to analyze this political recomposition, the cycle of struggles.
2) A global point of view. From the first texts of Raniero Panzieri attention is centered on planning. Capital acquires more relevance as a social power that tries to control the movements of the class, than as private property. From here there arises a new vision of the State : no longer is it the simple guarantor, but rather the organizer of exploitation, intervening directly in production. The form of the state is a consequence of the class composition. Antonio Negri can thus demonstrate that the “keynsian” state, and, in general, that what he calls the “planner state” is nothing other than the insertion of the October Revolution into capitalist development : workers power is considered as independent variable.
3) A political movement. If the working class is the motor for capitalist development, it can equally be, and is, a force of rupture. In a period of apparent reflux, in which one can speak of a working class will to integration, the operaists preached, and tried to organize, new struggle impelled by a new figure : the “mass worker”, the nonqualified worker in the large factories. Struggles for wage equality, not as corporatist claims but rather as political forces of rupture capable of blocking the system and augmenting workers power. The movement of ’68 would be perceived as confirmation of this thesis. There exists the possibility of rupture, and as such the construction of communism (against socialism, the new form of development) ; but also the state can equally impose its restructuration, once again transforming the workers struggles into simple motors for development.
4) A movement in History. The will to organize the movements in open conflict with the traditional worker movement provoked a rupture in the Quaderni Rossi (the originary journal of this tendency), lead by Panzieri : in 1964 the periodical Classe operaia was born, animated by Mario Tronti, Romano Alquati and Antonio Negri, among others, from which a part of the group separated in 1966, lead by Mario Tronti, that would end up entering into the PCI. After 1968, the group Potere Operaio would be one mode of inheriting the earlier tendency ; its self-dissolution in 1973 signaled the appearance of the “workers autonomy”. Negri would elaborate the theory of the “social worker” as new figure of a working class that had ceased to be concentrated in the large factories and had come to be distributed in a more diffused form in the totality of the territory, with the concept of productive work adopting a greater extension, and the State converting itself into the principle direct enemy. But that is already another story.
Quaderni Rossi, 1961-1965, republished, Roma, Nuove edizioni operaie, 1976-1978 ;
Classe operaia, 1964-1967, republished, Milan, Machina Libri, 1979 ;
Contropiano, Firenze, La Nuova Italia.
Books (in general collections of articles, assembled much later)
Romano Alquati, Sulla Fiat, Milan, Feltrinelli, 1975 ;
Antonio Negri, La Forma-Stato, Milan, Feltrinelli, 1977 ;
Id., Crisi dello Stato-piano, Milan, Feltrinelli, 1974 ;
Id., Proletari e Stato, Milan, Feltrinelli, 1976 ;
Raniero Panzieri, La crisi del movimento operaio, Milan, Lampugnani Nigri, 1973 ;
Id., La ripresa del marxismo-leninismo in Italia, Milan, Sapere Edizioni, 1973 ;
Mario Tronti, Operai e Capitale, Turín, Einaudi, 1966.
Operai e Stato, Milan, Feltrinelli, 1972 ;
Crisi e organizzazione operaia, Milan, Feltrinelli, 1974 ;
L’operaio multinazionale in Europa, Milan, Feltrinelli, 1974 ;
Imperialismo e classe operaia multinazionale, Milan, Feltrinelli, 1976.
Originally published as François Matheron, « Operaïsme », in Bensussan - Labica, Dictionnaire critique du marxisme, Paris, Quadrigue - Presses Universitaires de France, 1999.
Translated by Nate Holdren