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(en) Britain, Anarchist Federation Organise #67 -Book review - Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism, by Steve Wright (London: Pluto Press, 2002)

Date Thu, 14 Dec 2006 10:39:17 +0200

This is the only full length English language introduction to the Italian Marxist tradition of Operaismo or what later came to be known as autonomism - and which is now undergoing something of a revival under the title of `autonomist Marxism' with Toni Negri being the mismatched poster-boy. Previously only available as a PhD thesis or in mangled electronic form it was published by Pluto Press in 2002 and has since helped to uncover the material background to the original texts which are now circulating around the internet or in samizdat form and to further open up the real significance (including the limitations) of the key concepts of the tradition for those without Italian or access to specialist libraries.
The book opens with a very dense and useful introduction to immediate post-war Italy, the political background, the historical groups, the capitalist offensive (placed within an international context) and then moves through a near chronological examination of `workerism' as it emerged out of the resistance by workers and intellectuals to the Italian Socialist Party and Communist Party of Italy embrace of capitalist development and `nation-building' at the level of both the enterprise and as an institutional project, then follows the key concepts as they grew out of the working classes own behaviour and the later refinements as conditions altered.

One of the strengths of the book is that Steve doesn't beat around the bush or attempt to deal with the Byzantine organisational networks that criss-crossed the various Italian territories in the 60s and 70s, beyond what is essential. He clearly outlines what he regards to be the traditions main theoretical breakthroughs and what he considers to be its central weaknesses without fuss or the need for intellectual showboating - often problem in this particular area.

Amongst these key ideas that are viewed as particularly valuable is the concept of class composition and the early emphasis of Quaderni Rossi and Classe Operaia on flesh-and-blood working class behaviours as uncovered through the original use of `workers inquiries' by Alquati - even here though the often mechanistic chain of technical composition of labour process = political composition of working class = political organisation that was built on this approach is criticised and the later recognition of the importance of cultural factors by Primo Maggio is offered as a useful modification forced on the workerists by the reality of the internal differentiation of the working class in the factories and outside.

Other key concepts that are welcomed are the (sometimes confused) recognition of the importance of reproduction to capital, of social issues outside of the factory, of the rediscovery of working class histories long sidelined by the official parties historical narratives and of the centrality of working class movement to the development of capital - the discovery of the working class perspective as opposed to the logic of capital - an especially clear discussion of Mario Tronti's early texts makes this often difficult overturning of traditional Marxist approaches very simple to grasp.

Steve is equally as strong on the shortcomings of autonomism, and chief amongst the sinners is Tony Negri who comes in for some sustained (and justified) criticism for his `tendency' to abstractly impose a few characteristics of a limited section of the working class across the whole of the social terrain and to then make great leaps from this starting point - he quotes Tronti's apt warning that "a discourse which grow upon itself carries the mortal danger of verifying itself always and only through the successive passages of its own formal logic" -which seems more than little prophetic given Negri's recent trajectory.

Other workerists are criticised for their overwhelming concentration on the immediate process of production beyond the point where it was sustainable and the over-reaction when this became apparent to them - the consequent ditching of the mass worker thesis and the embrace of the socialised worker to the detriment of those still in the factories being particularly short-sighted and damaging. In fact, this sort of wild flip-flopping in pursuit of quick political gains is consistently deplored throughout the book. As is the gradual degeneration of the leading groups of autonomia into `political micro-factions' - especially of the `organised' section of the area of autonomy - who aped the forms of the historic left and tried to force the rhythm of the movement via a slightly modified vanguardism with disastrous results.

One slight criticism that I have is that the 1977 events are not really entered into in any great detail - in terms of activity anyway. There is, though, a very interesting look at Sergio Bologna's famous essay The Tribe of Moles which covers the composition and experience of the movement during that period. A similar point could be made as regards the terrible state repression that autonomia faced in the late 70s.

This book is all the more useful as it doesn't come from someone who has followed Negri and others into the post-modern swamp, and who hasn't rejected the key breakthroughs that were made in the 60s and 70s but instead argues that they should be built upon whilst recognising the changed conditions in which we find ourselves today - that would be to stick to the original promises of the workerists - something which many of the most prominent names connected with the traditions were unable to do themselves.
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