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New Left Review 73, January-February 2012

Mario Tronti

While most political forms and traditions of the European left cross-pollinated freely across national boundaries, the Italian operaismo of the 1960s was largely a sui generis experience in its time. Credited with a significant intellectual impact at home—transforming Italian sociology, through its project of worker inquiries, and yielding a heady if evanescent crop of theoretical journals: Quaderni rossi, Classe operaia, Angelus Novus, Contropiano—it had less immediate reverberation abroad than the larger current around Il Manifesto, whose cultural breadth and political consistency was of a different order. A condition for operaismo’s existence was the dramatic industrial expansion of the 1950s, within a culture already deeply coloured by two mass workers’ parties, each with its own lively intellectual life. The Italian Communist Party had some two million members, while the Socialist Party of the post-war decades was far to the left of Cold War social democracy; both were revitalized by the thaw that followed Khrushchev’s secret speech. Operaismo would be characterized by an implacable hostility to the diluted Gramscianism of the PCI’s ‘national-popular’ outlook (‘the Resistance as a second Risorgimento’), and by an engagement with anti-historicist, scientific methodologies. Early operaista thinkers sprang principally from the left of the PSI, whose watchword of ‘autonomy’—originally with a ‘for-itself’ connotation—remained a key term. A seminal figure, Raniero Panzieri (1921–64) edited the PSI’s theoretical journal Mondo operaio from 1957 to 59; marginalized by the Nenni leadership, he went to work for Einaudi in Turin. Launching Quaderni rossi there in 1961, Panzieri could draw on like-minded thinkers around Luciano Della Mea in Milan, Antonio Negri and Massimo Cacciari in the Veneto and Mario Tronti in Rome. Born into a working-class Communist family in Rome in 1931, Tronti had joined the PCI in the early 1950s, while studying philosophy at the University of Rome. Breaking with Quaderni rossi in 1964, he went on to edit Classe operaia, returning to the PCI in 1967 to pursue the operaista project within its ranks and developing a concept of the ‘autonomy of the political’. In this issue, we publish an edited extract from Tronti’s memoir of the movement, Noi operaisti, published by Derive Approdi in 2009. At once polemical and personal, it offers an illuminating contrast of the springtime of 56 and hot autumnn of 69, and draws a sharp distinction between classical operaismo and its distant echo, autonomism, which persisted on the counter-cultural margins of Europe’s cities from the late 70s, to emerge in more hygenic form in Hardt and Negri’s Empire at the turn of the century.

mario tronti


The italian operaismo of the 1960s starts with the birth of Quaderni rossi and stops with the death of Classe operaia. End of story. Thus goes the argument. Or alternatively—si le grain ne meurtoperaismo is reproduced in other ways, reincarnated, transformed, corrupted and . . . lost. This text originally sprang from the urge to clarify the intellectual distinction between operaismo—‘workerism’ the inadequate but unavoidable English translation—and post-operaismo, or the autonomia movements of the late 70s and after. Then the sweet pleasures of remembrance did the rest. Whether this ‘rest’ is in good taste or of any use today will be for its readers to judge. This is my truth, based on what I believed back then and which I only see more clearly today. I don’t want to provide a canonical interpretation of that project; but this is one of the possible readings, one-sided enough to support the good old idea of partisan research, that indigestible theoretical practice of ‘point of view’ that formed us.

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Mario Tronti, ‘Our Operaismo’, NLR 73: £3

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