The following is a transcript of the presentation given by members of the German-based Wildcat Collective at the Virginia Worker event held on October 30th. You can find more english texts from the Wildcat Collective here
The first issue of Wildcat had the number 33, that was in 1984 – because the 32 issues before that were published since 1977 under the name “Karlsruher Stadtzeitung”. There was also the Jobber-Info from 1980: a small magazine in A5 format.
Among other things, it was about drawing conclusions from the failure of the left-wing radicals: all the Third World guerrilla concepts, RAF, etc., all the Leninist party-building attempts, Maoism, etc. had proved to be dead ends.
On the level of our own reproduction, many worked in “precarious” conditions: i.e., jobbing, subcontracted work, etc. The goal was to develop a revolutionary perspective out of these conditions, i.e. class struggle not only to get higher wages, but to fight together against capitalism and for social revolution.
The theoretical background of Wildcat is operaism. “Operaism” did not really exist in Germany; and in Italy, where the current originated, it had already ceased to exist at that time. The groups had dissolved, many were imprisoned, had to flee and/or were talking nonsense. However, the term operaism comes from “operai”, meaning to work (“operaio”: the worker). Operaism means starting from workers, developing revolutionary theory and practice from the workers’ point of view.
1958: Panzieri’s Theses on Workers’ Control; 1961: Critique of Machinery; 1962: Alquati: Olivetti
To put it short: Marx found surplus value, the Operaists found class composition, the connection between the mode of production and the mode of rebellion.
Material and historical background of operaism:
In the period after the Second World War, Europe was once again more industrialized, especially in Western Europe. Large concentrations of workers were established in large factories and in what are now called supply chains.
Working conditions were bad, the left was in crisis, hopes and aspirations were high – workers began radical struggles and some leftists realized earlier than others that something completely new was happening here, namely that workers were developing strategies in a self-organized way (and thus eliminating Lenin’s dictum of “trade-unionist consciousness”) in order to wring ever new concessions from the capitalists.
These workers’ positions were central to capitalism, they produced the surplus value that the capitalists appropriated and on which their political power was based. But the capitalists didn’t expect at the time that the class struggle in the factories would develop so radically and that they would put even greater power into the hands of the workers with their industrialization policy.
From the Italian workers in the 60s came extensive struggles – not only against labor, but also very broadly against ecological and health developments, against rent, prisons, against leftist myths of workers’ control, against the whole system. Revolution was in the air then!
Very exaggeratedly and roughly speaking, the workers fought FIAT to break it – without mergers with other large corporations, FIAT would not longer exist today. Similar behaviors occurred in the big factories in the USA, France, and Germany. The capitalists had to smash the power of the masses of workers: through relocation, automation and outsourcing. This is how the global supply chains came into being – where today it is clear: they are no longer ecologically and humanly justifiable.
The “operaists” of the early phase examined the connection between workers’ struggle and revolution. Their theoretical reflections (the transition when many initially isolated weak workers become the labor force and then through struggle develop strength and become a collective subject, the working class or more specific in the phase of the “fordist large-scale factories” the “mass worker”; the antagonism in the labor and valorization process) have unfortunately remained the best of radical leftist thought to this day.
Because Wildcat were the first to translate the complicated Italian texts into German and because we still refer to them today, we are classified as operaist.
Revolutionary Marxism after World War II has tried to find new answers to the question of who can change this world in a revolutionary way and where a collective subject is constituted that can set this process in motion. We still find most interesting the answers of operaism to the three questions about the subject, about class and about our role in the revolutionary process.
1) To the question of the subject
there were essentially three answers: the apology of the 19th century bourgeois subject (Frankfurt School), the rejection of the subject (structuralism/mainstream of modern Marxism), and the concept of class composition.
The School of Class Composition’s critique of the bourgeois concept of subject can be summarized in this phrase: “The only material basis from which one can speak of subject is class composition.” That is, it is about a collective subject that is first constituted under the conditions of a particular mode of production in the struggle against the capital relation. A materialist analysis of the subject must be based on the analysis of class composition. Whoever wants to change society in a revolutionary way has to relate to it.
The concept of class composition criticizes, on the one hand, the false materialism that derives the class struggle from the found equal economic situation of the workers under capitalism, on the other hand, a philosophical concept of class that sets the class as the pure antagonist, as the subject that rebels and chooses a side, regardless of the existing conditions of production.
Class composition bridges the gap between (revolutionary) subjectivity and material conditions. Marx had provided the preliminary work in the Theses on Feuerbach, in which he recognizes human activity as something material. Therefore, the subject of change cannot be sought unilaterally in a material independent of man, nor in an imagined independent of the material, but only in the coincidence of the changing of men themselves, of their action and thought, with the changing of circumstances.
The working class is not a closed bloc, the self-immutable “revolutionary subject” with its historical mission, as the Stalinists knew it. It is composed differently according to qualification, gender, status, origin, etc. Its forms of struggle and content of struggle change with its composition (historically, geographically, etc.). The question of class composition opens the view to questions of migration, gender, skilled/unskilled, wage labor/housework, black labor, self-employed labor, etc.
Operaism does not ask whether “the workers” or “the students,” “the technicians” or “the marginalized” are “the revolutionary subject,” but looks for the tendency to revolution in the recomposition of the collective social worker [gesellschaftlicher Gesamtarbeiter]. Operaism gets by without an (outdated) notion of subject, identity, and authenticity, and was thus theoretically/philosophically ahead of and superior to the later poststructuralist critique. (In order to be able to recruit in the 77 youth movement in Italy, however, Negri incorporated poststructuralist ideologems, especially from Deleuze, into his philosophy of the social or immaterial worker, thus creating a kind of general tool box).
3) Our role
Marxism-Leninism has clear answers to the question of what role we can play in this process: organize in a cadre party, separate from the working class, but with the claim to teach it the right “(class) consciousness.” This basic idea continues to experience new strange fruits to this day.
Operaism is the exact opposite. Sergio Bologna writes: “The intellectual superiority of operaism came precisely from the fact that we had come to understand that the complex factory reality was more difficult to understand than the most complicated text of Marx.” And he continues, “It is difficult for an intellectual to admit that theory has no value in itself, but is at best an instrument. The intellectual sees in the production of theory a value in itself, an abstract value. He has to rebel against his own nature, against his own professional code, to understand that theory production is either an instrument for action or a commodity. If you want to understand operaism, it’s more important to talk about it than about the ingenious interpretations of Marxian texts that we did at the time.”
Unlike all other approaches, operaism focuses its main attention on the labor process – something that was still there with Marx, but which all his successors had forgotten.
Operaism is the only approach I know of that has a coherent concept of how revolution from below is actually possible, how social revolution becomes really conceivable. Other approaches that wanted to advance a revolution from below mostly got stuck in the trap of bureaucratic critique and workers’ self-management (SouB in the 50s – which, by the way, had influence on the emergence of QR). How operaism got out over these limits I will present in the next point.
In addition to the points already mentioned, a fourth is of crucial importance: operaism developed a radical critique of capitalist technology. The relations of production are stuck in the productive forces, these are not neutral. A liberated society with factories developed under capitalist conditions does not work. Only with this the inquiry of workers’ subjectivity could be brought together with the critique of capitalism, only with this the operaist work of inquiry could reach its explosive power. Only with this theoretical breakthrough did the Quaderni Rossi overcome (Trotskyist) notions such as “workers’ control” of factories, etc.
The political leap to which this led can be seen in the difference between Alquati’s two best-known investigative texts: “The New Forces at Fiat” from 1960 and “Organic Composition of Capital and Labor Power at Olivetti” from 1962. (“The New Forces at Fiat” appeared in QR 1 in 1961, “Organic Composition of capital and labor at Olivetti” in two parts, in 1962 in QR2 and 1963 in QR3.)
The paper “The New Forces at Fiat” was presented by Alquati at a PSI congress on Fiat in January 1961. Here he develops the concept of the conricerca, which has significantly influenced the further debate on workers’ inquiry. And his inquiry had a concrete result: the young workers, not organized in any party or union, are the bearers of the everyday class struggle at Fiat.
Whereby he buries one of the most effective myths of the official workers’ movement, that of the quasi-mechanical connection between “class consciousness” and “organization.” – But he is still stuck in the analysis that capital is merely parasitic and thus remains trapped in the perspective of “workers’ self-management.” He is still searching for the collective workers’ intelligence that can direct production itself.
In the Olivetti inquiry, he had at his disposal Panzieri’s critique of the prevailing understanding among most Marxists at the time that capitalist technology was something neutral. What party Marxists and trade unionists were willing to recognize as “technological rationality,” Panzieri had unmasked with Marx as “capitalist despotism,” means of war to crush workers’ revolts and subjugate living labor.
The “technological attack” consolidated the political power of capital, but at the same time it strengthened the potential power of the collective worker. And as the organic composition of capital changes in this confrontation, so does the “technical composition of the working class.” With this question in mind, Alquati examined both the capitalist machinery and the behavior of the workers at Olivetti.
The inquiry traces the antagonism in the labor process to its ramifications and captures the technical composition of the working class in all its contradictoriness: the workers are simultaneously subjects and trapped in their atomization – the class is part of capital.
In the labor process, they have to transgress the official rules in order to be able to cope with the specifications at all and to create openings for themselves. Only they know how to do this; capital has to wrest this knowledge from them again and again and objectify it in machinery. This raises a whole new question about workers’ power: how can workers turn around the productive cooperation imposed on them by capital and recognize it as their own collective power?
This critique of machinery and the capitalist organization of labor leads to that, that the operaists do not stop at such terrible half-measures as full automation (like Trotsky or the current debate on “fully automated luxury communism”).
And, by the way, they also had a great influence on architecture, on the women’s movement, on the critique of technology, and so on.
It is so easy to say “inquiry”…
But it is quite complex to grasp such a factory:
How is the production cycle related in the factory, how do the work steps come one after the other, what hierarchical levels are there in it, what function do they have for the capitalist?
Techniques for disciplining and integrating, the development of technologies and the various processing steps, the reactions of capital to the spontaneous behavior of the workers, the dynamics among the people: in the piecework group, in the department, between the departments, the communication systems of the workers during working hours, how do the old workers pass on their knowledge to the young, how does a “culture of conflict” develop (as one comrade puts it: “as a left-wing radical at the end of the 1970s, I first had to have it explained to me by my Yugoslavian colleagues that you don’t talk to the (social democratic) foreman!”), the internal divisions between the workers, how are the meal breaks used, is the canteen an important place of communication, how do the various point systems and piecework requirements serve to divide people, if we take action against them, does that bring us together or does it divide us further?
Is that perhaps even the way it is wanted? Does the union have anything to say? Is there political propaganda, what do the workers think of it? What is the function of the foreman? Do the workers take health risks to be able to do their work faster? How do they protect themselves from exhaustion? How do they help each other? How do they use piecework? What do they think of our flyers and leaflets? What should be in the next one? Do they have contacts in other factories? In the same industrial area, in the same production cycle? etc. etc.
In the mid-1980s, Wildcat in Germany worked with a questionnaire that had plus/minus 150 questions. Members told me that it was time-consuming, but they also told me that it was usually a lot of fun, because the colleagues noticed completely new aspects of their work, because they themselves developed new ideas about how we could fight back better, and because they themselves could start to work on the questionnaire again with other colleagues.
To sum up:
Class struggle is not something that acts on “capital” from outside, but it constitutes the capital relation. Class struggle is expressed not only in a historical chain of conflicts, struggles and uprisings, but also in the accumulation of capital, in its “organic composition,” as Marx called it.
Operaists have tried to understand Marx’s method and use it themselves; operaism is thus criticism of the fossilized categories of orthodox Marxism, which has become a worldview [Weltanschauung]. It develops its concepts from the actual struggles taking place and from the critique of the capitalist machinery. Class composition and inquiry are its core theoretical/practical points.
Actuality of the revolution
Also at the beginning of the 60s, some were looking for the revolution in all parts of the world and in all kinds of subjects, just not in themselves. And the others, the communist parties and the official workers’ movement, advocated an unprincipled “policy of alliances” in the “struggle against the monopolies”.
Against this, the operaists set the actuality of the revolution in Western Europe, that is, in the area of the world where one lives. They looked for the force that is actually capable of destroying the stability of the capitalist command. In doing so, they have tried to radically spell out the idea that in capitalism “revolution” takes place less as a bloodthirsty insurrection and more as a “social revolution” of those who are already forced by capital to cooperate.
Again Sergio Bologna: “Not political representatives, but social forces, men and women [and LGBTQ people] who work in places of the social division of labor from where they can stop the process. Not parliament, but the factory, not so much the scream and the violence itself, but the knack, the skills of those who knew this complex mechanism inside out and therefore knew how to block it, how to touch the part, or make contact in such a way that it puts the machine out of action.”
This was not the search for technician sabotage that was so common in the New Left at the time, the mystification of the one super-skilled person who pushes the button and everything stops.
In turning productive cooperation into workers’ power, the question of power and revolutionary subjectivity are related: From the class point of view, there is no (revolutionary counter-)power without content – but this counter-power also already has a content in its underlying collectivity.
We do not have to teach the workers from the outside what to use their power for; they have this power in the first place only from productive cooperation, insofar as they develop a collective subjectivity that breaks through the individualistic and privatistic subjectivity of each member of the working class.
The operaists did not look “below” for the revolutionary potentials because they were morally concerned about the wretched, but because they knew that this was the only way! In the factory, the workers are already organized. From this we can change everything – and incidentally throw away the communist distinction between union and party.
Sergio Bologna: “This was something radically different from the utopia of the all-decisive ‘general strike’. It was a break with the usual politics of simple slogans. Operaism started from the opposite, namely that we can overthrow the extremely complex capitalist rule only if we start from the complex composition of the class. How else would it have been possible to light so many fires, from lab technicians to computer scientists, from unskilled laborers to toolmakers, from chemical factory engineers to dockworkers, from nurses to truck drivers, from farm laborers to teachers? These were not all “mass workers,” but in him we and they had our compass and general principles like equality and the centrality of the wage question.”
In our current issues we have articles on the critique of the auto industry, critique of capitalist logistics, on the semiconductor industry, and every now and then on the struggles in the health sector. We either work in these sectors ourselves (or have been working there for a long time) and/or meet colleagues with whom we discuss and do interviews. We have also written a lot about the George Floyd rebellion.
In our last issue we deal with the Ukraine war, inflation, the emerging crisis (especially the role of the central banks) and the global revolts that are gaining momentum, in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, in Africa… But also in the »global north« there is a lot going on! Workers in the USA, Germany, UK and also in China don’t take it anymore and quit their jobs or demand much better conditions – we summarize this in an article as a worldwide “Lying Flat” movement. In addition, there are major strikes in the logistics sector: in the ports, on the railroads, at Amazon … Iran, France…