It was in the pages of the journal Quaderni rossi (Red Notebooks) that the theoretical and political current known as Operaismo (Workerism) began to take shape in Italy during the early 1960s. Central to this body of thought was the idea that the working class exists as an autonomous, self-constituting force, and not merely as a passive victim of capital’s onslaught. Among its most original contributions was an emphasis on the relationship between capitalist expansion and the formation of working-class subjectivities. This was explored to particularly brilliant effect by one of the journal’s founders, Danilo Montaldi, a figure little known outside Italy. Through oral history and autobiography, Montaldi’s work produced a living image of worker and lumpen subjectivities in motion, one without parallel in Marxist theory.
Born in Cremona in 1929, Montaldi grew up in fascist Italy, surrounded by artists, workers, anarchists, and socialists – all friends of his father, a transport worker with ties to the Bordigist faction of the Italian Communist Party (an anti-Stalinist left current). He left school at fourteen to fight in the resistance, acting as a courier for the Italian Communist Party’s (PCI) Fronte della Gioventù. Joining the party after the war, Montaldi soon left when his father and several of his comrades were expelled. The experience was a formative one: in Montaldi’s view, the PCI’s leader Palmiro Togliatti had sacrificed the most intellectually vibrant wing of the party for a national-electoral strategy that was ultimately reformist and patriotic in character.
Cremona was also decisive in shaping his outlook. Situated in the heart of the Po river valley, the region had been subject to an intense wave of agrarian capitalist development in the second half of the nineteenth century, and was the setting for some of the first socialist organizing in the country. Montaldi faulted the PCI for misunderstanding the needs and aspirations of the region’s farm workers, who wished ‘not at all to take possession of the land in order to reach the standard of living of the landowners, but to reach the level of the industrial worker in the cities. In fact, when these peasants occupied land, they never divided it into small properties, but made it into cooperatives.’ To focus solely on agitating in the factories was thus to exclude a mature and radical element of the rural proletariat.
Moving to Paris in the early 1950s, Montaldi made contact with the Socialisme ou Barbarie group, which had recently broken away from the Trotskyist international. Their politics were oriented around a critique of bureaucratization: that millions of workers were organized into hierarchical parties and trade unions constituted, in their view, a key barrier to social revolution. In a more libertarian vein, they looked to explore different forms of proletarian revolutionary action. To this end, the first issues of the group’s journal featured a serialized translation of The American Worker, a pamphlet published in Detroit in 1947 consisting of an autobiographical account of factory life by an autoworker, Paul Romano, and a theoretical analysis of that experience by Grace Lee Boggs. When he returned to Cremona in 1953, Montaldi published a translation of Romano’s account, explaining in a preface the significance of this text. It showed that it is in the realm of production that the proletariat’s ‘revolt against exploitation takes place, where it finds its ability to construct a better kind of society’. This was an implicit critique of Togliatti’s strategy for the PCI, which operated on the premise, first argued by Gramsci, that Italian capitalism was exceptionally backward: it was thus the responsibility of the party to overcome the disparities between north and south by building a strong national base and working with bourgeois parties. Secondly, Montaldi argued, the text demonstrated that the labour expended in the factory entailed a total subsumption of the worker’s personality to capitalist production: his or her physical as well as creative capacities were exhausted in the course of their daily work. This for him was the essence of Fordism, whether it was in the factory or the countryside: the experience of subordinating one’s life to the rhythms of production.
Montaldi was ultimately searching for a politics more directly connected to workers’ struggles. In 1955, he organized a study-group whose aim was to map the productive relations in Cremona, and in doing so, establish a common basis of struggle between workers and intellectuals. In 1957, this developed into an activist organization, the Gruppo di Unità Proletaria (GUP). Montaldi had by now fine-tuned the research technique that would guide its strategy: ‘conricerca’ or ‘co-research’. Its objective was not to produce a totalizing picture of social reality, or have workers simply report their knowledge to intellectuals who would then theorize about it. Instead, the starting point was the ever-changing ways that workers experienced forms of domination. By focusing on the subjectivity of workers, the partnership between intellectuals and proletarians could reveal the lines of fracture and class tensions that structured the workplace. This could enable them – as Montaldi emphasized in their 1957 program – ‘to give support and appropriate direction to the demands of the working-class base’. Accordingly, Montaldi called for co-research initiatives at the largest industrial and agricultural concerns in the region, from Sperlari and Negroni to Consorzio Agrario.
From 1948 on, Italy experienced the greatest economic boom in its history – a ‘miracle’ as it came to be called, with annual growth rates above 5 per cent, and giant leaps in per capita income. But, as Lucio Magri has noted, ‘everyone had to pay for accumulation, and the powers-that-be decided that workers and farmers should be the first to pay and the last to profit.’ A coordinated political attack against the left hobbled its capacity for concerted action, and empowered bosses and landlords at its expense. Mass layoffs and evictions followed; wage growth remained sluggish through the 1950s even as labour productivity soared; and management dismantled the structures of worker representation while bringing new machinery and forms of hierarchical control into the workplace. In 1959-60, workers began to strike back. A first wave of actions by electrical engineers took place in Milan; a second broke out in Turin among autoworkers, leading to an industry-wide strike. Montaldi’s GUP called for a nation-wide general strike, arguing that a fragmented offensive was sure to be defeated by the bosses. It also pushed for workers to form councils in the factories and the countryside: ‘the emancipation of the proletariat’, wrote the group, quoting Marx, ‘will be the work of the proletariat itself.’
Bound up with Italy’s miracle was a set of migratory movements. One flowed outward toward other countries in need of manpower; the others were internal, streaming from countryside to city, and from underdeveloped South to industrialized North. At first, the internal migrants landed in the metropolises of Turin and Milan, but increasingly they settled in the borderlands of the cities, living in makeshift huts known as ‘Koreas’, so called because they began to appear during the Korean War. These slums were the subject of Montaldi’s first book, Milano, Corea (1960), co-written with Franco Alasia. Like much of Montaldi’s work, the book has an autobiographical dimension: half is a collection of life stories from inhabitants of Milan’s Koreas, which endow the migrants – an otherwise ghostly presence in the northern cities – with flesh and personality, giving them authority and authorship over their own lives.
The other half is an ‘investigation’ by Montaldi. With a kind of ethnographic precision, he describes the familial relations migrants brought with them; their patterns of work; their moral codes; the humiliations they suffered in the older districts of the city. Montaldi analyzes how migrants have changed Milan, collapsing distinctions between centre and periphery, old and new. He also attempts to explain how the subjectivities of the migrants are linked to the larger social and productive relations of the city. For this he mobilizes an impressive amount of quantitative research: showing how landlords and bosses profit from the construction boom around Milan; how the city’s web of social services continually fails residents of the Koreas; how the political machinery of the city works to exclude migrants from civic life while benefitting from their low-wage labour. What emerges is a multi-tiered diagram of capitalist expansion in the city. This system, Montaldi notes, is riddled with contradictions. Its size and complexity is such that it can absorb and displace them, but not forever: Montaldi predicts that the migrant cities will resist being integrated completely into Milan’s civic life, and will one day ‘bring into crisis the key institutions of the current system of relations’.
In its experimental way, the book is a living document of proletarianization, capturing working-class subjectivities as they are moulded by the rhythms of industrial capitalism. This anticipates a key tenet of Operaismo, that capital is a system of social control that functions not merely by exploiting workers through the wage relation, but by subordinating and dominating them through institutions and government-initiated planning programs. The city as a whole becomes a kind of ‘social factory’, in which labour-power is controlled and disciplined by the political forces of capital. The theorists of Operaismo would also argue that workers nevertheless find ways to resist this regime and reassert their autonomy – through wildcat strikes, slowdowns, and absenteeism. This interplay of subordination and autonomy is at the heart of Milano, Corea’s sequence of migrant autobiographies: all share the experience of displacement and relocation; but, at the same time, each migrant struggles to reclaim the unique features of their own life.
Montaldi explored this dynamic from a different angle in Autobiografie della leggera (1961). Like its predecessor, the book features a lengthy introduction followed by a suite of worker autobiographies, but these are set deeper in the country, among the inns and taverns of provincial highways, and along the banks of the Po. Its protagonists are not migrants but drifters, or, as the book’s subtitle would have it, ‘outcasts, petty criminals, and rebels’, scraping together a living at the margins. There is a temptation, notes Montaldi, to romanticize these figures, to see them as the remnants of a lost pre-capitalist world. But capitalist development had in fact been transforming the Italian countryside since the nineteenth century and had made possible the growth of the northern cities. It was ‘the agrarian crises of the Po valley’, writes Montaldi, that produced emigration, and sent luckless peasants into the slums of Milan and Turin. The people who remained in the country and did not become farm workers tended to practice the kinds of rural trades – fisherman, woodcutter, or boatmen – that had no place in city life. This left them suspended in an interstitial space: too unskilled to work in the old artisanal trades; but not deskilled enough to join the ranks of the proletariat in the factories or in the fields of capitalist agriculture.
As Pasolini noted in an admiring review of the book, there is a literary sensibility to its autobiographical narratives: ‘each writer-speaker seems to me to be fully aware that there is something special in the telling of their life stories’. The experiences of which they tell are remarkably unbound and contingent: the narrators wander from town to town, sometimes finding work, sometimes engaging in petty crime. Money is scarce, the police and fascist spies are everywhere, and most of the narrators spend time in prison. Fiu’s story opens with an orgy that is broken up by the police. Teuta, a thief, happens to be in France at the outbreak of the First World War and is sent to fight at Verdun; Cicci, a prostitute, moves at one point to Africa, where the pay is better but the work more dangerous. Like the Koreas, the world in which they operate is lacking basic provisions: few shops, pitiable schools, and minimal health-care services. Orlando P.’s brother dies of an unknown disease; Cicci’s mother attempts suicide by throwing herself in the Po.
For Montaldi, these narratives are symptomatic of their setting. On the one hand, capital’s restructuring of the countryside has meant the destabilization of older patterns of culture and modes of subjectivity. On the other, Montaldi sees in the authors’ adherence to older folkways a ‘refusal’ to conform, a conscious ‘non-adaptation to industrial life’. He even detects ‘traces of resistance to assimilation’ in the way the narrators switch out of standard Italian into local dialect – disobedience at the level of language. A similar point could be made about the narrative forms adopted by the authors, which often have the feel of a fable. Their modern use was explored by Benjamin in his 1937 essay ‘The Storyteller’. Unlike the novelist, who, Benjamin says, ‘isolates himself’ and begins from a place of solitude, ‘the storyteller finds his material in experience’, which he then recounts to a community of listeners. As such, the art of storytelling has ‘long flourished in the world of manual labour’ and ‘is itself a form of artisanal labour’. ‘It does not aim to transmit the pure intrinsic nature of the thing like information or a report. It plunges the thing into the life of the teller and draws it out again’.
But, ultimately, Benjamin, like Montaldi, resists seeing the storyteller merely as a relic of the old world. Rather the emphasis is on the new role they have assumed in modernity, that of sage or counsellor. For both thinkers, the autobiography-as-fable functions as a record of experience, but more significantly, it offers moral instruction: Montaldi’s authors model a radical autonomy in their refusal to submit to the domination of capital. In this sense, the proletarian autobiography is not an isolated product, but a moment of class struggle, the record of a social movement in formation.
As worker and student militancy boiled over to produce the biennio rosso of 1968-1969, Montaldi continued to work feverishly. He translated Lévi-Strauss’s Totemisme aujourd’hui, opened an art gallery in Cremona, and published another volume of worker autobiographies, this one focused on grassroots party militants (Militanti politici di base). Montaldi and the GUP was active in the worker revolts of 1969, agitating with ironworkers in Venice, and publishing texts and communiqués from the working-class insurgents. He regretted that there was no true proletarian party in Italy to help the masses take power.
Montaldi’s short life ended in 1975 when he drowned in unknown circumstances in the Roya, which runs along the Franco-Italian border. At the time, he was assembling materials for an oral history of the 1969 worker revolt, which had been proposed to him by the historian Carlo Ginzburg. Given Montaldi’s unique approach, it would have been a momentous document. Even so, Montaldi’s influence was far reaching. For Sergio Bologna, one of Operaismo’s leading thinkers, it was Montaldi’s two books from the early 1960s more than anything written by Marx that shaped the movement’s thinking in its early days: ‘As I remember it,’ he wrote, ‘the group of young people who gravitated towards the Quaderni Rossi in 1961-62 were characterized first and foremost by a desire to understand the profound transformation that both productive facilities and the urban environment were undergoing; the need to master a theoretical-systematic framework by which to interpret what was happening in accordance with a Marxian logic came second.’ Montaldi directly influenced a number of these Quaderni Rossi figures, perhaps Romano Alquati most of all, a sociologist from Cremona who used Montaldi’s ‘co-research’ technique to conduct a landmark inquiry into new forms of worker consciousness at FIAT and Olivetti. After a split in 1963, Alquati went on to found Classe Operaia with Antonio Negri and Mario Tronti, which became the core journal of Operaismo.
Well before Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City, Montaldi shattered the false antinomy between a supposedly idyllic, pre-capitalist countryside and a corrupted, industrialized city. The effect was to bring working-class revolt out of the factories into the migrant suburbs and depopulated countryside. It took a figure of Montaldi’s upbringing and outlook to see in the lumpen characters of the modern city and its peripheries the making of revolutionary subjectivities.
Read on: Mario Tronti, ‘Our Operaismo’, NLR 73.