Workers and Capital by Mario Tronti – A Review

Luhuna Carvalho

Five decades after it first came out, the hugely influential Marxist classic Workers and Capital, the Italian 1968’s bildungsroman, has finally appeared in an English translation, filling an important gap within contemporary political theory and adding a crucial contribution to the discussion about the 60s’ social movements and the New Left.

Workers and Capital (1967) collects a series of incisive and highly polemical articles by the philosopher Mario Tronti, originally published in the early 60s in a series of Marxist journals edited by a group of militant social researchers which had just broke with the Italian Communist Party (PCI), by then the largest in the Western Europe. Over the following decades, Tronti’s book would acquire an almost mythical status, influencing movements all over Europe and setting the groundwork for a number of contemporary debates about social reproduction and the future of capitalism.

Claiming that the industrial workers’ struggles happening outside of union or party representation rendered the party obsolete, Tronti and others developed a theoretical framework from which to grasp what lay beneath workers’ allegedly spontaneous rejection of both factory rule and political representation. Named after the industrial working class that sustained Italy’s post-war “economic miracle”, Operaismo described how capitalism development now managed every aspect of life and society, a common sixties Marxist trope to which Tronti added a plot twist: workers’ resistance came before capital. Workers’ resistance to exploitation was the main driving force in the social and technological development of capitalism, forcing bosses to employ new machines and new forms of organization in the workplace.

This Marxist ‘Copernican turn’ grounded Tronti’s understanding of class. Class was not a sociological category, a cultural identity, or a political unity – it wasn’t the people – but rather a ‘partial’ and partisan force that only emerged within the antagonism of modern relations of production. When not struggling, class became labour-force, a mere instrument for the reproduction of capitalism. This led to the claim that summarizes Tronti’s entire span of work: that political action is always a partisan action, that cannot take into account the general interests of society, now a sphere of capitalist domain, but only the specific interests of the class.

Throughout the following decade, Operaismo morphed into Autonomia, an informal coalition of radical workers, students, and neighborhood committees. While Tronti quickly became disillusioned the incapacity of forming a new communist party, Italian philosopher Toni Negri developed Operaismo’s claims in the following decades, becoming one of the main figures of contemporary leftist thought.

Tronti’s returned to the PCI in the late 60s, when it was already drifting away from Soviet influence, becoming a state senator up to this day. Unlike his former comrades, Tronti felt that the decentralized reorganization of industrial labour prevented the working class from truly becoming revolutionary, and that the only remaining option was to try and make the state function as a barrier to capital’s triumph.

Workers and Capital has until now been largely ignored in the anglophone world, even if some of Tronti’s articles were translated in the past. The era’s theoretical legacy is often reduced to a backdrop for Negri’s Empire tetralogy, even if the projects are substantially different.

Verso’s edition long awaited edition is nevertheless flawed by rushed and questionable translation choices that misread some of Tronti’s claims, when not outright inverting them. The translation of Workers and Capital is a notoriously complex task, much due to the famous literary charisma of the original, but also to difficulty in finding English equivalents to the distinction between operai (industrial workers) and lavoratori (workers). Tronti’s distinction is erased when both translate as ‘working class’. But this translation presents other significant problems. For example, Tronti responds to the critics who question that all ‘development’ is but the ‘development of capital’ by asking “whoever told you that we care for the civilization of men?”.  However, this somehow appears as “whoever said that capitalists care for the civilization of men?”, something clearly at odds with the text’s fundamental position. Likewise, the translator makes the dubious choice of translating every masculine third person pronoun as feminine. Women were simply largely absent from the factories featured in Workers and Capital, and Tronti’s operaismo, right or wrong, does not make any claims whatsoever regarding gender. A strong and influential critique of Operaismo’s gender politics, that nevertheless upheld its core claims, was later developed by people like Mariarosa della Costa, Carla Lonzi, and Silvia Federici, laying the ground for contemporary social reproduction theory.

These problems notwithstanding, Workers and Capital remains an essential document to those interested not only in the development of post-war Marxist theory, but also to those concerned with the autonomous struggles that exploded globally in the last decade. How much did Tronti’s ‘rude and pagan’ working class survived deindustrialization is an open debate, but the systematization of the relation between antagonism and modern capitalist social relations remains a crucial tool from which to read contemporary politics. One needs only to be reminded of Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s apt description of the Alt-right as a right-wing Operaismo to see how the pertinence of Tronti’s political framework survived the decline of the western working class.