Operaism without Bolshevism is an Empty Posture: Wildcat’s Failure to Grasp the Political Preconditions of Social Revolution


Tibor Szamuely – editor of the Counter Attack Journal – offers this response to the Wildcat Collective’s recent presentation entitled ‘Only a Social Revolution Can Save Humanity…And Only the Workers Can Make It’


Evading Old Problems with False Novelty 

In a time when the centrality of the site of production of surplus value to any process of universal emancipation remains obscure and those who claim the political heritage of past worker vanguards do little to clarify it, Wildcat’s insistence that “Operaism means starting from workers, developing revolutionary theory and practice from the workers’ point of view.” is to be welcomed.

However, a problem quickly emerges in their logic. 

“Starting from workers” means starting from the actuality of the class contradiction which constitutes capitalist society at a given moment, the perpetual struggle between the workers and the representatives of capital over the terms of sale of labour power. This starting point is a necessity of any materialist policy for communism. “Developing revolutionary theory and practice from the workers point of view” means the constitution and organisation of revolutionary subjectivity within this struggle not external to it. This likewise cannot be avoided.

The only possible social site of communist politics is the terrain of struggle over the wage. So far so good. What comes next?

“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.”

Here the wheels start to come off. Wildcat begins by informing us that in post WW2 Europe the “left was in crisis” but does not see fit to clarify in what this “crisis” consisted. This is a matter of some importance.

The political precondition for the post-war reconstruction of capitalism was the subordination of the working class movement to the policy of class collaboration entailed by “socialism in one country”.

The communist parties, however, refused to pose the question of state power for the working class on either side of the Iron Curtain preferring to build welfare states constituted by the subordination of wage labour and justified by the ideology of popular democracy and anti-fascism.

And no oppositional currents, to the left of the Stalinist program of people’s democracy were able to dislodge them. 

It was the absence of worker organisation able to take the crisis of capital as an opportunity to seize state power which created the situation Wildcat describes. Otherwise it would not have been the “left” but capitalism which would have found itself in-possibly terminal crisis-in the post war years.

Next in Wildcat’s narrative we learn that workers in post war Europe began “radical struggles”. An interesting turn of phrase-radical after all means going to the root-in this case presumably the root of worker subordination in capitalist society. This root is nothing but the capitalist command over the social whole constituted in the state.

Without police any sit down strike can become an expropriation without compensation in no time. 

This leads us to pose the question-what radical struggles, struggles directly putting capitalist command over state power in question, were occurring in the stabilised post war Europe which birthed operaism? The short answer is none.

The European working class had waged such struggles in the interwar years, armed struggles which counterposed the dictatorship of the worker vanguard through the councils to the parliamentary dictatorship of the capitalists.

In Europe at the time of the origins of operaism this was already a faint and distorted memory because the mass organisations of the working class had reduced the question of state power to the question of governmental participation. 

Unfortunately we are soon to learn that Wildcat has its own definition of “radical” which is confused at best. According to them radicalism was to be found in the fact that “something completely new” was happening. Workers were “developing strategies” in a “self organised way” in order to “wring ever new concessions from the capitalists”. This phenomena was so novel that it “eliminated” the Leninist dictum of “trade union consciousness”. Bold claims. 

First of all, we are compelled to ask-what exactly is new, “completely” or otherwise in all this? Is it not a fact that workers organising themselves and developing strategies to wring ever new concessions from the capitalists forms the substance of the entire history of the workers movement?

In the 19th century workers organised themselves and developed strategies to demand the limitation of the working day and even secure employment in “national workshops” (as Marx discussed at length in Volume One of Capital and Class Struggles in France).

Today where ever the labour movement shows signs of life, workers continue to do the same. Unless the working class are somehow reduced below the level of our ape relatives by new technology we can assume this strategising and organising will continue. False novelty like patriotism is a popular refugee for scoundrels. 

Secondly, we must note by the same token that the constant presence of this strategising and organising far from refuting the Leninist concept of “trade union consciousness” is merely its restatement.

For Lenin trade union consciousness is precisely the strategising and self organising which emerges whenever workers confront employers over the terms of sale of labour power. Nor needless to say did he consider this a bad thing. However, unlike Wildcat, he saw that if workers were to overcome the wage relation itself and not simply renegotiate it they had to make a qualitative leap. 

A leap from a struggle with employers over the wage to a struggle with the state for power. The dictatorial power required to abolish the wage relation itself and restructure production from the production of exchange value to the production of use value on the level of the total process.

And this leap required a move from the empirical consciousness produced by the immediate experience of struggle and unavoidably conditioned by the bourgeois ideology workers absorb from the whole of civil society.

A move towards the assimilation of scientific consciousness-that is to say a systematic knowledge of the entire historical process constituted through the application of the methodology of dialectical materialism.

Only with a scientific consciousness of the whole can the working class advance from partial struggles for “ever new concessions” to the struggle to qualitatively transform the social totality.

Wildcat is no doubt right that in the Italy of the Sixties (as in many other countries) “revolution was in the air”. The tragedy however was that was these refreshing gusts of revolutionary breeze never coalesced into something substantial.

Far from making a bid for power which overturned the world, the sons and daughters of operaismo either dissipated back into reformism or unwilling to capitulate waged a hopelessly minoritarian rearguard battle against restructuring which ended in the special prisons. Wildcat has nothing to say about all this because to discuss the question of how in the Seventies the working class might have been able to turn the tide and break the Historic Compromise on a national scale opening the perspective of a revolutionary crisis would raise too many distinctly “Leninist” questions.

Questions which Wildcat chained to the immediacy of the struggle within the enterprise simply can’t grasp. As we can see when they reflect on the connection between workers struggle and revolution: 

“The “operaists” of the early phase examined the connection between workers’ struggle and revolution…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.”

The above formulation is untrue to its self description because it never reaches its second term (“revolution”) remaining comfortably confined within its first (“workers struggle”). What it describes is the transition of the isolated worker into an element of a social subject who challenges the terms of sale of labour power in the enterprise.

How does this social subject become a nationally and internationally articulated counter power which standing against the power of the total capital articulated in the state implements a program of power for living labour against capitalist command throughout the social whole?

How does this counter power struggle within the workers movement against the counter-tendency towards the integration of the workers movement as a counter-revolutionary mechanism of stabilisation? Wildcat unlike the more sophisticated successors of the workerist legacy in the Italy of the Seventies seems unconcerned by these questions.

Far from going beyond Lenin and Trotsky, Wildcat’s truncated take on operaismo stops where they begin. 

Three Questions and their Underwhelming Answers 

After their initial positing of trade union consciousness as not the starting point and terrain of revolutionary politics, but its entire content, Wildcat proceeds to enlighten us on the questions of the (revolutionary) “subject”, the (working) “class” and last and it unfortunately seems to be least “our role in the revolutionary process.”. 

Regarding the “subject” Wildcat informs us that:

“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.”

Like their opening this is all quite correct. The problem emerges with the assumption that this idea and not simply a particular mode of its expression was an original discovery of Italian workerists on the cusp of the Sixties.

Restricting ourselves to the work of Lenin who appears to be a favourite punching bag of Wildcat we can observe that Lenin’s entire career is related to the resolution of questions of class composition-the delineation of the sites of political subjectivity through an analysis of the particular relations of production which constitute their economic basis. 

The subject in constitution whose fusion with scientific consciousness is the necessary precondition of revolution is not taken as given or identified with the working class qua working class. On the contrary it is identified as the urban workers in the large enterprises on the base of a detailed investigation of the development of capitalism in Russia.

Moreover with the concept of the labour aristocracy any naive idea of a working class whose unity is pregiven is repudiated explicitly. Capitalist production is understood as stratifying the working class against itself creating a material base for bourgeois politics within the working class and requiring a strategy for the construction of revolutionary unity against the political effects of this stratification. 

Keeping this in mind it is easy to understand that the discovery that the “working class” is not a “closed bloc” is no dramatic new discovery. On the contrary the Leninist Comintern found its reason for being in the understanding that a stratified working class was compelled to wage a political (and military!) struggle within its own ranks which had its economic roots in uneven capitalist development and the stratification of the sellers of labour power within this development.

The question of the “recomposition of the collective social worker” and the question of the “united front” are two angles of approach to the same problem. However the angle of approach of the united front expressed a more advanced level of class struggle-a moment defined by a mass political polarisation within the working class around the question of struggle for state power qualitatively more extensive then the abortive polarisation at the end of the Italian Seventies which formed the tragic final act of operaism. 

When we arrive at the concluding question–that of “our role” Wildcat begins by positing a hopeless absolute dichotomy and situating itself firmly at one of the two equally misguided extremes:

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.”…

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.”

For the Wildcat version of “Marxism-Leninism”, everything is simple, organise a cadre consolidated around an abstractly correct “general line” synthesized as a kind of Cliff Notes of prior historical experience and unilaterally inject this into the class movement at the current moment.

Wildcat  rejects this schematic and mechanical framework for the transmission of scientific consciousness and assets as an alternative an equally unilateral submersion in the “complex factory reality”. And they are quite proud of this. Having seen the failure of “Marxist-Leninist” abstract-idealism they come to the rescue of confused and disillusioned militants with a straightforward pragmatic empiricism.

The synthesis of the historical experience of the workers movement and its struggle for state power into programmatic and strategic conclusions through dialectical materialist methodology is so much intellectual dross. What matters is only the tangible reality of the labour process.

A reality which Lenin and Luxemburg, despite all their immersion in factory statistics had allegedly “forgotten”. In truth both the maligned “Marxist-Leninists” and Bologna are correct. It’s only in the contradictory unity of these two terms that a revolutionary workers’ politics finds its dynamic force. 

To Overcome “Trotskyist Notions” its Best to Understand them First

At this point Wildcat announces another novelty: 

“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.”

Here Wildcat seems to labour under the misconception that Trotsky considered worker’s control of capitalist factories as forming the content of a “liberated society”.

In reality for Trotsky worker’s control far from forming the content of “liberation” was simply a transitional step towards the expropriation of the entire national economy by the proletarian state which was itself only a precondition of socialism not its realisation.

The idea of resolving the contradictions of the capitalist enterprise through workers control on the enterprise level would never have occurred to Trotsky for whom socialism was impossible in a single country, let alone a single enterprise. 

Wildcat’s incapacity to grasp this highlights the fundamental insufficiency of their approach. Revolutionary potential cannot be actualised within the immediacy of worker struggle at the enterprise level because communism has meaning as a progressive project only on the global level of the social whole.

And this in turn means the actualisation of communism is possible only through the mediation of the proletarian party and the proletarian state as the representatives of the general interest in the abolition of wage labour and the construction of a world natural economy.

Struggle in the enterprises is a “school” which can forge a revolutionary worker elite able to seize power over the social whole and impose this program upon it. But only if this elite is able to break with the economist narrowness and primitivism which Wildcat and their cothinkers treasure so dearly. 

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