Some comments on a recent article regarding operaismo and “autonomism” – Steve Wright

Steve Wright is the author of Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism (Pluto Press 2017) and The Weight of the Printed Word: Text, Context and Militancy in Operaismo (Haymarket Books 2023).

[Note: a short addendum has been added at the end, in part to clarify an initial criticism that, upon reflection, seems too harsh]

Luca Tavan’s recent article on “Workerism and autonomism in Italy’s ‘Hot Autumn'” in Marxist Left Review is a textbook example of constructing one’s case based on the selective use of selected sources – and then ignoring not only other sources, but also the line of argument presented in many of the sources that were used (above all, those that fall outside a certain canon of work: in this case, Callinicos (?!), Harman, Fuller). What the author of this piece has done instead is to first take a position, and then find the “facts” that seem to fit, to the exclusion of all else. I believe someone else has already warned about the risks involved in such an approach, since “any anticipation of results yet to be proved seems disruptive” – but then, that person probably didn’t know what they were talking about. 

The results in this instance are disappointing – all the more disappointing because both operaismo and autonomia are open to all sorts of critiques, many of them serious. More than this, the need to engage in a critical fashion with those experiences remains important and necessary, given the significance of social struggles in Italy across the 1960s and 1970s. Despite the best efforts of some, however, little has yet appeared in English about operaismo and autonomia, and much of what is known is interpreted via the distorted optic of “post-operaismo”. And while in this latest case attention is indeed focused on the 1960s and 1970s, what we are offered is still little more than a caricature.

What follows aims to explore the problem in a preliminary fashion, with the hope that others will join in. Thanks to the wonders of the interweb, the possibility now exists of beginning to construct a richer picture (and critique) of operaismo and autonomia, so verifying or disproving my assertions below should just require a certain commitment of time (oh, and in some cases – but not all! – the ability to read Italian. Even then, you can have fun with various online “translators” seeking at least some sense of what the original said) . 

The Golden Horde: Revolutionary Italy, 1960–1977
Edited by Nanni Balestrini and Primo Moroni

In terms of the selection of materials on operaismo, the article in question utilises almost nothing produced in recent years. For example, the massive collection of documents from that time, entitled The Golden Horde and recently translated by Richard Braude, is just cherry-picked for a single article, ignoring not only the richness of its contents, but also the fascinating commentary developed by its compilers – one of whom was close to the autonomists, the other indeed a prominent member. Both Balestrini and Moroni savage key sections of Autonomia at various points of their narrative, albeit in manners quite different to the MLR article, but you would never know. Nor are there any Italian writings used, despite a wealth of sources also freely available in print and online (e.g. the mammoth Archivio Autonomia, which contains thousands of leaflets, newspapers and other publications). While Phil Edwards’ excellent account of the 1970s is drawn on, his own interpretation of the period is not addressed. Moving on, recently translated sources in English that document the work of autonomists within the manufacturing sector, such as the book  The “Red Guard” Tells its Story by Emilio Mentasti (downloadable from libcom, a site the author is obviously familiar with, since it is drawn upon for another reference), are nowhere to be seen. My first book is raided for examples, but its reading of the period is ignored, and my second book – which draws on and examines a much greater range of materials, explicitly addresses the workerists’ political projects, and has been available for 18 months or more – is also overlooked (I am hurt. OK, I’m not, but it is an important oversight all the same, given the extensive discussion there of primary sources).

The Weight of the Printed Word: Text, Context and Militancy in Operaismo, Steve Wright

Some specific points: for most of the 1960s, most workerists were – until many of their factory militants were expelled from the unions towards the end of the decade – very cautious about abandoning work in the latter. They certainly argued that unions were creatures of the capital relation, but they continued to insist (and a minority of them did so into the 1970s) that in some instances workers “used” the unions, and this had to be calibrated into any equations about the organisation of class autonomy. The dominant perspective within operaismo shifted after 1968, but even the early Autonomia – when it was primarily a workplace network – continued to argue about the merits of participating in the new factory councils, and even (in some cases) the unions.

Yes, Potere Operaio’s “neo-Leninism” was very far from that of received Cliffite tradition (one instance of which can be found here), and afterwards lots of potoppisti made fun of its trappings (although that didn’t stop them going along with them at the time). And yes, the slogan of the “armed party” was an unmitigated disaster – no shit – but the possible reasons why the majority of Potop descended into that loopiness are not addressed either. Since the newspapers and journals of Potere Operaio are all now online, it’s not difficult for those who are able to read Italian to explore in considerable detail what the group meant by both of these terms. 

Italian Operaismo: Genealogy, History, Method, By Gigi Roggero. Translated by Clara Pope

[an upcoming book that is worth reading – I have reviewed it here]

The weakest section is the discussion of autonomia, summed up thus: “This new movement, dubbed Autonomia Operaia (Workers’ Autonomy) privileged local autonomous organising, alternative lifestyles and subculture, and in some cases armed struggle against the state.” This statement can only be made by confusing three entities: the wider movement to the left of the Democrazia Proletaria bloc / those organisations that explicitly identified with the autonomist movement / the self-defined “organised” currents within the latter. What it should have said was that Autonomia’s starting point was in the local workplace, neighbourhoods, that some components of Autonomia in the widest sense embraced alternative lifestyles, and that most of the “organised” autonomists (who dominated the movement) ridiculed “lifestyle politics” whilst often embracing parts of the new youth subculture (music, soft drugs etc.). And yes, a number of components of the movement formed armed organisations, the most famous being Prima Linea: once again, there is a complex (but comprehensible) debate around this and the ensuing debacle, from within the movement at the time, as well as beyond it. No mention of this here though. For those who are looking for a detailed explanation of the movement’s evolution, an indispensable place to start is Patrick Cuninghame’s PhD thesis.

There is no question but that the workplace perspectives of Autonomia organizzata failed in the 1970s, and some of the reasons are addressed in the article (some of these echo my own criticisms in Storming Heaven, which in turn were only echoes of what dissident operaisti argued at the time). Here too there were critiques made at the time from within the movement, such as in Collegamenti or by the Volsci in Rome, directed at Negri and his supporters (interestingly, nothing is said of the impressive workplace organising carried out by the Volsci, or the Magneti Marelli committee, or …). But does Negri equal Autonomia? Can you really argue that, in 2023? And then going on to extol the perspectives of the first four congresses of the Comintern as the antidote needed is laughable, as is the notion that what was required was: “a united front approach to the Communist Party, meaning joint struggles to strengthen the fighting capacity of the class while exposing the limitations of the PCI’s reformist parliamentarism”. Tell that to the militants at the Innocenti plant (a dispute that is actually  briefly mentioned, although its implications are not understood) or the Rome teaching hospital who were subject to witch hunts by the PCI. Or the students facing armoured cars in “Red” Bologna in 1977.


[a 90-page expose of “subversive violence”, published in December 1977 by the Rome federation of the Communist party – a detailed fingering of members of Autonomia above all]

Finally, the award for the silliest sentence may well go to this one: “The autonomists were united by a rejection of the need for leadership exercised by centralised political parties.” No one familiar with the project from autonomia organizzata to Autonomia Organizzata would write such a thing, so I really don’t understand why it is here, as I’m sure the author is neither a liar nor an idiot. Almost without exception, only the most marginalised groupings within and around the autonomist movement – beginning with Collegamenti again, the journal Primo Maggio around Sergio Bologna, some situationist-influenced circles, and the Marghera militants during their Lavoro Zero phase – were prepared to challenge what they called “the Leninist idiocies” of Autonomia Organizzata: everyone else was intent on building the party, and more and more so as 1977 advanced. Beyond that, probably only the circle around Franco (Bifo) Berardi had the standing to make such critiques at the time and be listened to – and yes, they did wander off into “lifestyle” politics, although not right away. Here too the Archivio Autonomia is a rich source of materials, beginning with Negri’s journal Rosso (you can start with its flirtations with the MLs then moving into Autonomia Organizzata, Negri’s favourite new playmates of the time being the Partito Comunista (Marxista-Leninista) Italiano). 

[“For the workers’ front, against restructuring, against revisionism”: headline from the paper of the PC(m-l)I, January 1977]

I have also touched on this in a short essay on what “The Party of Autonomy” meant for both the organised autonomists and their critics. As for primary sources translated into English, there is Sergio Bologna’s classic 1977 essay “The Tribe of Moles”, which amongst other things examines some of the problems that arose that year “when everyone whipped out their Lenin masks from behind their backs – in particular the Workers’ Autonomy tendency (Autonomia Operaia) in the North” (this is another source briefly mentioned in the article, but used selectively). And we should never forget the stern words of Oreste Scalzone (to be fair, later he would develop an outlook more informed by ultra-left sensibilities), at the height of the brawling amongst rival vanguardists, in the sports stadium during the 1977 Bologna convention: “militants of the Comitati Comunisti Rivoluzionari who continue fighting will be subject to disciplinary sanctions!” Yes, being a member of the CoCoRi in those days was the very essence of “lifestyle politics”.

photo by Enrico Scuro –

Someone else can talk about the approach of most of Autonomia Organizzata to violence and armed groups like the Brigate Rosse, which was usually wrongheaded before the great shock of the Moro kidnapping sent them reeling, but mostly not for the reasons presented in this article. Worth reading here is Mark Howard’s fine PhD, which both examines the political violence associated with radical left movements in Italy between 1968 and 1978, and how mainstream social movement studies has too often misunderstood the participants, their goals, and the context in which they operated.

On a minor note, there is a curious misreading in the article of the tendency’s understanding of class struggle in the labour process in terms of capital’s organic composition, which is deemed technologically determinist. What is interesting to observe here is how a Trotskyist flinches in the face of an orthodox Marxian insistence upon what workers are compelled to do, presumably because it leaves little space for those “bringing consciousness” from the outside. Of course, whether such orthodoxy is correct is another matter but In the process, one of the key weaknesses of mainstream operaismo – its over-emphasis of the so-called “advanced” moments of class composition – is completely missed. Yet again, here is a critique that at the time was raised from within operaismo: by the Collegamenti circle (they’re doing a lot of heavy lifting today, but they were my favourite part of Autonomia), and in a different way by many workerist feminists [As a nerdy aside, a not-dissimilar critique has been made more recently by Max Tomba concerning Negri’s later trumpeting of the supposed centrality of “immaterial labour”].

In conclusion (because 2100 words are about 1900 more than I intended to write), I don’t know the comrade who wrote this article. I have heard that they are familiar with Italian sources. I would encourage them by all means to develop their critique of operaismo and autonomia – but in order to do that, they really need to 

a) address the primary sources as well as the secondary literature 

b) use a much wider range of sources now available in English 

c) explore the arguments made in those secondary sources, as well as the original debates in the primary sources, and then 

d) be prepared to find things that may not fit into how Fuller et al. have portrayed them. 

Excellent research on the period from a Trotskyist perspective has long been carried out by Diego Giachetti – why not start there?

Addendum: Upon reflection, there are a couple of things to add. The first is that the comment above about the author failing to understand the meaning and implications of the Innocenti dispute (just one of many at the time) was overly harsh. Their article (again mostly drawing on the short account in my first book, although Phil’s is used as well) quotes part of Sergio Bologna’s arguments concerning divisions in that factory, and how these provided the basis for the PCI and CGIL to assert their dominance. Fair enough. But who is Bologna? At the time, he was not simply a “collaborator” of Negri (they continued to work together as academics and in editing a book series long after Bologna had quit Potere Operaio in disgust over talk of “the armed party”). Most of all, he was a prominent workerist critical of most of the groups in Autonomia Organizzata, and not unsympathetic to some of the groupings in the broader autonomist movement (some people then called the latter “autonomia diffusa”). Reading the article, however, you would never know that the question of appropriate organising strategies for workers in larger factories was hotly debated at the time amongst both the “organised” factions and the “diffuse” collectives. Nor that Negri’s thesis of the operaio sociale (which allegedly encompassed workers in smaller factories as well as the unemployed etc.) was criticised by other autonomists, such as the Volsci in Rome, for abandoning the large factories. Nor that in practice the collectives within Negri’s group based in workplaces like Siemens or Alfa Romeo didn’t suddenly disband as a consequence of the new line; if anything, they intensified their factory work, then began working with militants of the PC(m-l)I and other “organised” factions to establish a workers’ coordination in factories big and small across Milan.

Which brings us to the second point: the nature of the alleged“lifestyle politics” of the proletarian youth circles and many other components of what was soon to be called “the Movement of 77” is again crudely distorted in the MLR article. The “proletarian youth” weren’t simply students pretending to be proles: typically they were apprentices and/or unemployed workers, and they too grappled with the realities of the labour market, which for many of them meant working in the many smaller factories that had been invigorated by the dispersion of the immediate process of production outside the larger concerns. Equally, like autonomists in large workplaces (e.g. the petrochemical plants near Venice), they were working to build resistance to cost of living pressures through campaigns to “self-reduce” utility bills: the younger lot’s innovation was to extend them to luxury items like cinema tickets. Self-reduction was a domain in which links could be and sometimes were established with workers still under the sway of the mainstream labour movement (and to reiterate, it wasn’t just autonomists who were challenging the latter: there were also anarchists and many circles within what had previously been called the “extra-parliamentary left”). In this context, many social centres and other occupied spaces were not set up at this point as retreats from capitalism, but rather as launching pads for further social conflict. Yoga plus rank-and-file workplace organising. Balestrini’s novel The Unseen (based on Sergio Bianchi’s life story) captures some of this nicely. Granted, there was indeed a retreat on this front, but it largely came later, with the mass repression from 1979 onwards. Nor can the impact of the spread of heroin amongst militants be underestimated.

The relationship between so-called “lifestyle politics” and “class politics” is the most difficult thing to grasp about this period in Italy, and I am still grappling with it as we work with Jacopo Galimberti (author of the recent and amazing text Images of Class) to finish a book about “the Movement of 77”. Here, as Bologna and others began to map out, all this was laid across a class composition within which many people were students, but were also employed in white collar work, or were outworkers, or were even factory workers. As Primo Moroni amongst others pointed out, in the best instances it was possible to create a virtuous circle between the rethinking of revolutionary politics bound up with slogans like “the personal is political” with engagement in production  – and equally, beyond production, in the sphere of reproduction. In the worst instances, yes, things polarised instead between what would later be called tree-huggers on the one hand, and “factoryists” on the other, with a growing milieu of armed groups (partly straddling both? e.g. while Prima Linea was soon profoundly altered by the new “Movement”, it was itself initially a product of the most “factory” component of Autonomia Organizzata) further complicating the picture. 
My best take at the moment is that the new “Movement” fell apart precisely because of its inability to negotiate this terrain, to put the pieces of the puzzle together in a manner that promoted rather than hindered class recomposition. They were not helped in any of this by the Leninist pretensions of much of the “organised” autonomists, nor by the strictures of rival Leninists in the more conventional far left. Although struggles spread through the hospital sector in 1978, and largely outside union control, efforts to organise resistance to layoffs in sites like some of the smaller factories in Milan – something in which the Collegamenti circle played a leading role – were undermined by the new climate of repression and conformism that the PCI and CGIL were able to impose with the Moro kidnapping. Here too “lifestyle politics” were not the problem. Apart from the growth in “diffuse terroism’, the extent to which the new “Movement” defined itself as a youth phenomenon was a problem  – here too, autonomist organisations like the Volsci, who often counted much older militants in their ranks, were very critical of others in Autonomia and beyond on this front. But that is a story for another time. For now, let’s remember to try and not let our preconceptions of things get in the way of our analysis, since “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Comments on this article? Join the discussion at our Discord server, in our Telegram channel or on Twitter.