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14 September 2023

Mario Tronti’s divine comedy

How the Italian philosopher, who died last month aged 92, turned to theology in his war with the world.

By Madoc Cairns

There were no books in the house Mario Tronti was born in. There were stories. Here’s one of them. For 100 centuries, there have been two kinds of people: those who give orders and those who serve. Then in 1917, in Russia, everything was turned upside down. The ones who serve and work and suffer decided to put themselves in charge. Ever since then, all over the world, the ones who give orders had been afraid. Of the faraway country, yes; but of the ones who serve in their own lands too. They knew that someday, perhaps soon, the same thing could happen in Italy. Could happen, maybe, all over the world.

And they were frightened because there was a third kind of person in the world: those who serve but do not obey. Such people, wherever they went, told the story of the faraway country where things were different; how, one day, things would be different here too. Mario Tronti’s father was one of the people who served but did not obey: he was a communist. His son was a communist too. When he grew up, he remembered the story his father told him, and although Mario Tronti wrote many books, he would never trust them. His masterpiece, Workers and Capital (1966), the “bible” of the Italian radical left, explained why: writing is a weapon, he said, “taken from the bosses’ arsenal”. Words are like every other beautiful thing, Tronti said. They belong to someone else.

That’s Tronti. Double-edged, double-tongued. Paradoxical. Ironic. Writes about everything except himself. Biography, therefore, sparse. Born: 1931, Rome. Family: poor. Father communist; mother Catholic. Both devout. Educated: church schools, party meetings, University of Rome. Joined the communist party: 1949. Never leaves. Words he likes: force, courage; organisation, conflict, overthrow. Words he doesn’t: conformity, reconciliation, consensus, peace. Influences: unpredictable. Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin; Max Weber and Friedrich Nietzsche. Ambition: universal. Tronti’s is a world narrowed to a single point: revolution.

But by the time he finishes his PhD, in 1956, the year a workers’ revolution in Hungary was crushed by the Russian workers’ state, Tronti doesn’t know where he is. The founders of operaismo will talk about the late Fifties as their selva oscura, the “dark wood” Dante finds himself in at the beginning of the Divine Comedy. Before he travels through hell, purgatory and paradise, Dante’s nowhere: “The straight road had been lost.”

Outside Italy’s communist party, the PCI, politics was dominated by clericalism, capitalism and anti-communism. Within, the old revolutionary aspirations had devolved to an “Italian road to socialism”: constitutional, gradual, patriotic. Economic development first, the party said; revolution later. Cheap labour from the south fed new industries in the north: expanded living standards for one year, two years, five. The economy boomed. Politics stagnated. Everything changed. Everything stayed the same. The newspapers call it a miracle. It didn’t feel like one.

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In 1943, a communist-organised strike at Fiat’s Mirafiori plant in Turin marked the beginning of the end for fascism and laid the foundation of the PCI’s postwar prestige. Twelve years on, in 1955, the vote cast for the PCI-affiliated trade union in elections to Mirafiori’s workplace commissions drops from 68 per cent to under a quarter. Work had changed: from high-skill craftsmen to low-skill production lines. Workers had changed too. Uninterested in unions, apathetic about politics, the migrant “mass worker” was, the PCI concluded, a lost cause. In 1917, Russian factory workers had turned everything upside down. But that was a long time ago. Four decades on from Red October, revolution was just a word.

It was a “desert”, Tronti remembered: a time when “nothing happened”. Then something did. Tronti meets Raniero Panzieri, dissident sociologist, socialist dissident. He is, like Tronti, against the political consensus, against the PCI’s new road, against the ones who give orders; the bosses; capital. He’s for revolution. In conversations, over dinner, on long night walks, a friendship begins. The bond between them grows, expands, multiplies. They find friends: a Catholic activist called Antonio Negri; Romano Alquati, an intellectual from Cremona; Sergio Bologna, a technician in Turin. Operaismo translates to “workerism” in English: it’s literal, but not quite accurate. For Tronti, operaismo will be all kinds of things: a “new way of doing politics”, a “cultural revolution”, a “missed revolutionary opportunity”. What it meant in the beginning was friendship.

[See also: EP Thompson’s dystopian visions]

Out of the circle around Panzieri and Tronti comes a journal: Quaderni Rossi, or Red Notebooks. And then, together, the operaists find the straight road again. Lost in the afterglow of the economic miracle, occluded by consensus, muffled by the echo of the new production lines, something was struggling to be born. The number of strikes had tripled in a single year. “Actively and intimately, in the daily process of the development of capitalism,” Tronti writes to Panzieri in June 1961, “the revolution is alive.”

“We must change direction,” Tronti writes. “Start from the beginning.” Everyone starts with those who give orders, no one with the ones who serve. But without workers, nothing works. The wheels stop. The cities die. We aren’t victims, Tronti writes. We’re the power behind every throne there ever was. Capital moves because we move: every act of resistance drives the system to evade us, manage us, subvert our struggles, pacify our demands. The tracks of this conflict in human history is what we call progress. “Start again from the beginning,” Tronti writes. “Reverse the polarity.” Throw away the script.

This is what we should be looking for, Tronti says: not the “the development of capitalism, but the development of the revolution”. People will call it a “Copernican revolution”. Tronti never likes the phrase. These are the images he uses: we’re on a journey to unexplored continents, travelling in a country without maps. We’re going inside the factory, inside the system, working patiently, from within, researching and studying and coming, slowly, to understand. Then, Mario Tronti says: then we’re going to blow it up.

The first time they turned up at the factory gates, Tronti remembered, the workers asked them if their leaflets were money. The operaists kept going. They start conversations, conduct interviews, store research: “Weberian methodology mixed with the politics of Marxist analysis.” Panzieri calls it “worker’s inquiry”. Tronti says: “Turn on the lights inside the factory.”

Here’s what they see inside. It looked like the “mass worker” had retreated from struggle, but that’s not what it was. The analysis was right, but the perspective was wrong. “Planned non-cooperation, organised passivity, political refusal” weren’t, Tronti realised, retreats from struggle. They were forms of it.

Parties would compromise; unions would sell you out; the science served up by bosses would always serve the boss. Before the “specific rationality” of capitalist production, as Tronti puts it, the human needs of workers appear irrational. Before the common sense of the “society of capital”, rebellion can look like apathy. But sometimes the most radical action is a refusal to act. In a society ordered comprehensively against your interests, sealed from critique, inoculated from dissent, tabulated and managed and controlled, revolution is a shift missed, a job botched, an order ignored, a word. No.

Tronti calls it the “strategy of refusal”. It arrives in Italian history on 7 July 1962: Fiat Mirafiori, Turin. Seven years after the defeat of the communists, pay negotiations break down. Some unions strike; two others sign a separate agreement. Sparks fly. Without organisation, or direction, or warning, workers enter the Piazza Statuto and stone the headquarters of a union who signed. Police intervene. Fire catches. The protest turns to a riot; the riot turns to a strike; 160,000 workers down tools. Turin burns. It’s the largest strategic defeat capital has suffered in decades, Tronti writes later. At the time he uses a different word. Miracle.

Five decades after 1917, the gate opens. Tronti’s out of the selva oscura: he can see the straight road to revolution, running straight through the production lines. We can’t just study the struggle, he decides: it needs to be accelerated. It needs to be organised. If we don’t move to attack capital’s positions, he tells Panzieri at the beginning of 1963, we lose our own.

Later that year Quaderni Rossi splits, and Tronti founds Classe Operaia: journal, network, party-in-waiting. The first issue carries an editorial: “Lenin in England”. If Workers and Capital is Tronti’s masterpiece, “Lenin in England” is his manifesto: an operaist catechism, an itemised inversion of Marxisant common sense. The left thinks European workers are compromised, part of the machine. Not part of, Tronti says: within. Within and against.

The left thinks the system will break in the Third World, where capital is weakest. Right analysis, thinks Tronti: wrong perspective. Reverse the polarity. Start again. Don’t fight the enemy where they’re weak, Tronti says. Fight them where we’re strong. Lenin is in England. Marx is in Detroit. “A battleship Potemkin can easily be found,” Tronti says, “in any Piazza Statuto.”

Accelerate the tempo. Organise the struggle. Win here, in the imperial core, where the supply chains of world capital meet and combine and interweave, and we win everywhere. Finish what we started 50 years before. “Give us the party in Italy,” Mario Tronti says, “and we will overthrow all of Europe.”

[See also: Why I loved my dog]

This is what class struggle looks like to Tronti: movement, agility, courage, force. It’s not the combat of a war, grinding, attritional. It’s fluid, unstable, personal. A duel: capital and labour, those who give orders and those who serve. Look: sabotage, protest, strike. See: attack, parry, lunge. Rising profits, falling governments, fascists here, police there; retreat, feint, parry, riposte. For the next 18 years unrest spreads, sharpens, intensifies; the blows fall quicker every year, month, day. The tempo they set is the heartbeat of a revolution. Mario Tronti is training his ears.

Workers and Capital is published in 1966. The upheaval it anticipates arrives two years later. It’s 1968: students demonstrate in London, Paris, Berlin, Rome. They call it the Hot Autumn. Italy burns. Strike, blockage, occupation, protest: attack, parry, counterattack, lunge. November 1968: 12 million join a general strike. Advance. Then, 1969: 520 million hours lost to strike action. Advance. On 3 July 1969: Mirafiori is out again; students and workers fighting the police for 12 hours. The placards say: we want everything.

Tronti’s everywhere now: Workers and Capital is being read on the picket lines and barricades, photocopied and cyclostyled and hand-copied to illegibility. But the more it looks like Tronti got everything right, the more he’s worried he got everything wrong. In 1967, he returns to the PCI. The operaists number a few thousand; the PCI a million and a half. With them, revolution would have begun already, Tronti says. Without them, no revolution ever will. “Tactics,” he writes, “rule out no solution.” The gate’s open. It won’t always be. In 1970, he goes further, arguing that revolutionaries bring the struggle into the state itself. “Cursed by everyone,” the initiative sinks without trace. Decades later, one line surfaces in a speech by Labour’s shadow chancellor, John McDonnell: “Within and against the state.” I’ve never been a political theorist, Tronti said. I’m a politician who thinks.

The final editorial of Classe Operaia closed like this: it will not be easy. It isn’t. On 12 December 1969: neofascists bomb Piazza Fontana, Milan. Seventeen dead. Riposte. Capital fights back, Tronti says: “decomposed, violent, subversive”. They call it the strategy of tension. It doesn’t work. In 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975. The share of gross national product going to labour rises from 57 per cent to 73 per cent. Advance. Tronti says: the struggles must accelerate. They do. Tronti says: the struggle has to be organised: it isn’t. Operaismo’s most significant descendant, autonomism, disputes whether a party organisation is necessary at all.

At the 1976 election 34 per cent of Italians vote for the PCI: unprecedented. Advance. In 1977, occupations, demonstrations, strikes, riots. Parry, riposte, advance, lunge. There’s combat everywhere, but who’s fighting who? Rome: PCI rally attacked by autonomists. Bologna: a PCI mayor calls in tanks against autonomist demonstrations. Police shoot protesters. Protesters shoot back. Make it explode, Tronti said. He didn’t mean this. New words: armed struggle, red brigades, years of lead.

March 1978. Aldo Moro, twice prime minister, kidnapped by the Red Brigades. May 1978: Aldo Moro shot dead. In the armed underground, lines are blurred, actions secretive, motivations opaque. Tronti hears what everyone’s hearing: they let Aldo Moro die. Repression, censorship in 1979. Martial law. Forty thousand accused; 15,000 imprisoned, 6,000 sentenced. Retreat. September 1980. Mirafiori is out again. Advance. October 1980. Marcia di quarantamila. Forty thousand employees and managers march against the picket line. One final reversal: the workers against the working class. The strike breaks. Retreat. Retreat. Retreat.

Operaismo, Tronti wrote later, ended where it began. Between Piazza Statuto and the Marcia di quarantamila, for 18 years, a gate stood open to a different kind of world. That autumn morning in 1980, it slammed shut. Tronti’s peers disappear into exile or prison or conformity; the unions crumble; the PCI falls apart. Zusammenbruch, says Tronti: total collapse. Predicted for capitalism, enacted on the left.

From then on, for as long as he lives, Tronti’s is a world fracturing outwards from a single point: defeat. His thought turns inwards. Tronti reverses himself. Look: 18 years of victory. Right analysis; wrong perspective. Look again: “A general defeat, punctuated by illusory small-scale victories.” Everything changed so that everything could stay the same. The light on the horizon wasn’t dawn. It was “the fading light of a setting sun”.

People saw the promise of Tronti’s “Copernican revolution”, but not the warning. If history is a story of workers in struggle pushing capital to develop, reform, adapt, the converse is also true. Capital is always, always, fighting back. Resistance is constant, yes; and constantly managed, co-opted, suborned, misdirected, repressed. If there is a limit to the system’s ability to contain conflict, it’s never yet been reached.

Tronti said: No class without class struggle. Class is a relationship, a collective antagonism, recognised in the face of the enemy. Relationships can’t be beaten, or imprisoned, or bombed. But they can be broken. Like this: turn the lights off in the factory. Specialise, separate, outsource overseas. Production lines to cubicles; workers to consumers; mass-worker to mass-individual. Reverse the polarity. No class struggle without class.

So here we are: depoliticised societies, disorientated peoples: wasteland around us; deserts within. We’re trapped behind the bars of an eternal present, Tronti writes. We’re trapped inside ourselves. When people say capitalism reflects human nature – selfish, spiteful, unfeeling – they’re right. Capital remade us that way. This world can’t be accepted, Tronti writes. But neither can it be changed. How do you say no to a boss who lives inside your head?

Tronti’s back in the selva oscura. None of the roads he walks are straight. Elected to the senate in 1992, just too late for it to matter, he splits his time between politics and academia. Two professions: “two wildernesses”. Fifty years after Workers and Capital, he tells a reading group what he did in the years after the end of everything that mattered. It was then, he says, that I became “a hermit monk”. It’s a figure of speech, but not just that. Tronti begins visiting monasteries across Italy; to speak; to listen; to study; to pray. He talks to monks in the city and in the country, in solitude or in the midst of the poor. He finds friends.

They tell him a story. Three centuries after God died, at a time of crisis, thousands of people walked away from everything they knew. They walked until they found nothing. Then they began to pray. These men and women, the first monks, known as the Desert Fathers, left behind a collection of strange, ironic parables, half riddles, half jokes. If they end at all, they end in failure. The pattern they follow is this: a young monk doesn’t know what to do; asks an elder a question. Abba, he says. Give me a word.

[See also: Hobbes was wrong]

The Church was born in fire and lives in defeat. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit descended on the first Christians in the shape of living flame. It was a miracle. It didn’t last. For 2,000 years the Church has compromised with history, with the world of money and violence and power. And for 2,000 years, the “anti-history” of the gospel keeps turning everything upside down. Monastics – committed to imitate perfectly the poverty of Christ – are the most visible sign of the impossible balance the Church has somehow kept: a challenge perpetually rejected and continually renewed. In the world, John’s Gospel says: but not of it. In and not of, Tronti says: within and against. Mario Tronti is practising workers’ enquiry in the kingdom of Heaven. He’s looking for a word.

Marxism kept faith in history. History didn’t keep faith in us. It couldn’t have been otherwise, Tronti decides. History, like everything in this world, belongs to someone else. Capital’s victory is total: “existential”, “anthropological”. But their victory is only final if this world is all there is. “Transcendence and revolution are very closely linked.” The history of the modern revolutionary movement began in 1847, when the atheistic Communist League was founded from the Christian League of the Just. We won’t start again “from new beginnings”, Tronti writes, “but from interrupted paths”.

In 2012, Tronti signs an appeal calling for the left to dialogue with the conservative papacy of Benedict XVI. He receives a new title: Ratzingerian Marxist. The adjective doesn’t quite fit. To the end, Tronti lingered on the threshold of faith. Neither does the noun. It’s not a question of leaving Marx behind as going beyond him, Tronti said: accepting that politics isn’t a science; history isn’t destiny. Tronti’s grandfather died in the poorhouse, he tells one interviewer, and those who gave orders in his time are still giving orders today. Tronti doesn’t believe in progress anymore. He still believes in revenge.

In the years since the great defeat Tronti had changed. He hadn’t moderated. This is my spirituality, he told one audience: “At peace with myself; at war with the world.” Mario Tronti didn’t find consolation in theology. He found weapons for the struggle ahead. The struggle that, despite everything, is still going on. “Capital cannot destroy the working class,” Tronti wrote once, but “the working class can destroy capital”. The left was amnesiac about history, he complained: detached from the world of work; more concerned with formulating policy than in naming the enemy for what it is. Start again. Turn the lights on in the factory. Set sail for the lost continents. Tell the story: for as long as there have been those who give orders, there have been those who would not obey. Here’s a policy for the poor, Tronti says: let them fight.

And if we’re to mount “a new assault on reality”, we need weapons fit for the task. Tronti calls it “political mysticism”. Radical rejection of the world as it is; lived commitment to the world as it should be. A kind of revolutionary monasticism: kommunismus forma vitae. It requires the quality Tronti admired most about monks: the “tragic drama” of limits recognised but never accepted. No force in the world can help you overcome the world. Freedom comes from somewhere else. You can only be within and against, Tronti says, if you’re already outside and beyond.

In 2020, in a time of great crisis, Tronti co-writes an appeal, Xeniteia, recommending the left follow the example of the Desert Fathers. Some understood it to mean a retreat into the self; an “anthropological pessimist’s” last surrender. Right analysis, wrong perspective. It’s only when you let go of optimism that you make room for hope. “Despair for the future,” Tronti quoted one of the monks he knew: “and absolute faith in the unexpected.”

The long walk into the desert looked like a retreat; but that’s not what it was. The enemy is in money and violence and power; it’s everywhere we are; it’s inside your head. An enemy like that can’t be escaped. It can only be fought. Reverse the polarity. Start again. The desert isn’t a refuge. It’s a training ground. You don’t fight the enemy where he’s weakest. You fight him where you’re strong. On the outside of everything, the revolution is alive.

There are no books by the Desert Fathers. There are stories. Here’s one of them. A young monk goes to an elder. He’s fasted, and prayed, and kept silence: still, he does not know God. He’s tried everything, and everything has failed. Abba, he says: give me a word. The old monk looks at the younger. He raises his hands. Silence. Then: a miracle. From his fingertips rise living flames. “‘Do not conform, but transform yourselves,’” Mario Tronti writes, not long before he died in August this year, “for the free spirit opens the divine gates that human history has closed.” In the desert, the old monk speaks. “Why not,” he says, “be utterly changed into fire?”

[See also: Milan Kundera’s identity crisis]

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