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.

I say we, because I believe I can speak for a handful of people inseparably linked by a bond of political friendship, who shared a common knot of problems as ‘lived thought’. For us, the classic political friend/enemy distinction was not just a concept of the enemy, but a theory and a practice of the friend as well. We became and have remained friends because we discovered, politically, a common enemy in front of us; this had consequences that determined the intellectual decisions of the time and the horizons that followed. I shall try to speak simply, eschewing literary language. Yet it needs to be said that 1960s operaismo forged its own ‘high style’ of writing, chiselled, lucid, confrontational, in which we thought we grasped the rhythm of the factory workers in struggle against the bosses. Each historical passage chooses its own form of symbolic representation. Semi-literate partisans facing Nazi execution squads produced the Lettere di condannati a morte della Resistenza, a work of art.footnote1 In the same way, the boys who stood outside the gates of the Mirafiori factory in Turin in the early morning went home at night to read the young Lukács’s Soul and Form. Strong thought requires strong writing. A sense of the grandeur of the conflict awoke in us a passion for the Nietzschean style: to speak in a noble register, in the name of those beneath.

I have never forgotten the lesson we learned at the factory gates, when we arrived with our pretentious leaflets, inviting workers to join the anti-capitalist struggle. The answer, always the same, coming from the hands that accepted our bits of paper. They would laugh and say: ‘What is it? Money?’ A ‘rough pagan race’ indeed. This was not the bourgeois mandate, enrichissez-vous; it was the word, wages, presented as an objectively antagonistic reply to the word, profit. Operaismo reworked Marx’s brilliant phrase—the proletariat attaining its own emancipation will free all humanity—to read: the working class, by following its own, partial interests, creates a general crisis in the relations of capital. Operaismo marked a way of thinking politically. Thought and history encountered each other in a direct, immediate and frontal clash. What is had to be exposed to analysis, reflection, criticism and judgement. What had been said and written on it came later.

The biographical account that follows retains an element of ambiguity between personal and generational registers. But I should say at the outset that my operaismo was of a Communist kind. This was not the case for the most part, even in the early days; party members were never a majority within Italian workerism, nor dominant in Quaderni rossi or Classe operaia; the combination was perhaps my personal problem. Here I will describe the Lehrjahre—the formative apprenticeship years—of the operaisti, a limited but significant generational fraction. A clumsy historian of events, as well as ideas, I will try to explain the complex, early stabs at the operaisti argument, and some of what came after.

One key date emerges as a strategic locus for us all: 1956. Several things made that year ‘unforgettable’, but I would stress the transition—in effect, an epistemological rupture—from a party truth to a class truth. The time span from the Soviet Twentieth Party Congress to the Hungarian events constituted a sequence of leaps in the awareness of a young generation of intellectuals. I sensed, before I consciously thought it, that the twentieth century ended there. We awoke from the dogmatic slumber of historicity. In Italy, the rule of the proper noun, as substantive or adjective, materialist or idealist—the De Sanctis–Labriola–Croce–Gramsci line—had exercised an unparalleled cultural hegemony in politics. Thanks to Togliatti’s charisma, a powerful group of pci leaders had formed around it in the post-war period, and now set about putting it to work. At the Istituto Gramsci you could encounter party members from the Directorate and the Secretariat. They didn’t write books, or get improbable ghost-writers to do so for them. They read books. And between one initiative and the next, they discussed what they thought of them.

At a certain point a strange-looking character arrived from Sicily—he had been teaching in Messina: tall, wiry, with a hooked nose and hawkish face. He spoke in difficult language, and his writing was even harder to understand. But Della Volpe took apart, piece by piece, the cultural line of the Italian Communists, paying no heed to orthodox allegiances.footnote2 To be honest: we freed ourselves from the pci’s Gramscian ‘national-popular’, but a certain intellectual aristocratism clung to us still. Understanding was more important than persuasion; toiling over the concept created difficulties with the word. Today the opposite is true—ease of discourse means dispensing with thought. The approach we took then seems all the more valuable now, when the triumph of mediatized vulgarity over political language is complete. Ours was a school of ascetic intellectual rigour, which came at the cost of a slightly self-referential isolation. Science against ideology—that was the paradigm. Marx contra Hegel, like Galileo against the Scholastics, or Aristotle against the Platonists. Then, broadly speaking, we outgrew this schema as far as content was concerned, while retaining its lessons with regard to method. On reflection, it was precisely on this basis that, from 1956 onwards, while others—the majority—were rediscovering the value of bourgeois freedoms, we few were given the chance to discover, one step at a time, by trial and error, the horizons of communist liberty.

I remain unsure about the choice of political tactics at that point—not what was ‘correct’, but what would have been most useful. It’s true that, at times, little depends on your own decisions and much on circumstances, openings, encounters. But there was another path open to us in 1956: that of political growth within the mass-membership pci, whose leadership had embarked upon a period of ‘renewal in continuity’. What would this second path have entailed? A long march through the organization; a cultural sacrifice on the altar of praxis; the exercise of that Renaissance political category, ‘honest dissimulation’. In my personal formation, Togliatti was the master politician par excellence. I ask myself if it would have been possible to be a Togliattian, but with a different culture—and answer, yes. Politics has an autonomy of its own, even from the cultural framework that sustains and at times legitimates it. We let ourselves get carried away by the fascinating pleasure of alternative thinking. But the lingering doubt remains that the other path may have been the right one: saying a little less and doing a little more. The theoretical discovery of the ‘autonomy of the political’ took place within the practical experience of operaismo; it was only its historical-conceptual elaboration that came later—and with it, the realization of having failed to reach a synthesis of ‘inside and against’.