Embracing Failure

Mario Tronti, who died earlier this month at the age of 92, was best-known as the author of Workers and Capital (1966). Consisting mostly of essays written in the first half of the sixties, his magnum opus was the most influential text of operaismo, the theoretical current that was then emerging in Italy amid a wave of labour militancy and factory occupations. ‘Workerism’, in the approximate translation, placed renewed emphasis on working-class struggle and consciousness. Foregrounding the primacy of labour in capitalist accumulation, the operaisti argued that the principal focus of Marxism should be not the abstract laws of capital, but workers themselves, without whom capitalism cannot function and who ‘push capitalist production forward from within’. In the bold vision of operaismo, workers act and capital adapts. ‘We too saw capitalist development first and the workers second’, Tronti wrote in ‘Lenin in England’, his editorial in the inaugural issue of Classe Operaia, a journal he co-founded in 1963. ‘This is a mistake. Now we have to turn the problem on its head, change orientation, and start again from first principles, which means focusing on the struggle of the working class.’

Born to a working-class family in Rome, Tronti studied philosophy at Sapienza under Della Volpe in the 1950s, when he became a partisan of the PCI. Led to question the orthodox Marxism he absorbed from the party after the USSR’s invasion of Hungary in 1956, and inspired by Della Volpe’s attack on positivism, Tronti began to criticize dialectical materialism as a form of naïve metaphysics. He took the view that classical Marxism was at once too historicist and evolutionary, and too oriented to a far-off future. What was needed was not a theory of history but a ‘science’ of present-day realities. ‘Marxism’, he would write in Workers and Capital, ‘has to engage with Marx not in his time, but in our own.’

In the early sixties, he joined a group of sociologists who, profoundly influenced by Max Weber and led by the socialist Raniero Panzieri, founded Quaderni Rossi (1961–66). The first of several spirited, short-lived operaist publications, the journal was devoted to the study of postwar Italian capitalism and aimed to galvanize the rebellious workers in the country’s industrial north. Noting the close imbrication of capitalism and industrial progress – as Panzieri argued, ‘the two terms capitalism and development are the same thing’ – the aim of their research was to study workers’ efforts to become autonomous from and even halt that development. This critique of productivism became the premise of Classe Operaia (1963–67), which Tronti launched along with the historian Alberto Asor Rosa and the philosopher Antonio Negri.

Focusing on Fiat’s enormous plants in northern Italy – a cornerstone of the economy – the Quaderni Rossi circle argued that factory, society and state had become tightly interconnected; industry was fundamentally a political tool deployed to control labour and standardize society. As a result of the growing dominance of industry, society was becoming what Tronti called ‘an articulation of production’: ‘the whole society lives in function of the factory and the factory extends its exclusive domain over the whole society.’ Yet the tentacular reach of manufacturing and the importance of industrial workers also gave shop-floor struggle broader social significance and immediate political potential. The conflicts underway inside the factories were therefore not only between the needs of labour and the imperatives of the firms, but between workers and the state itself. At this pivotal conjuncture of Italian capitalism, Tronti contended, workers in key industries had the strategic power to reshape the state. A ‘vision of the part, to see the whole’, operaismo insisted that the refusal of productive labour – through absenteeism, strikes and other industrial actions of the period – was a threat to the system as such.

Above all, operaismo mounted a profound critique of work, one that questioned the place of labour in our lives. In a world in which the assembly line seemed to foreshadow the standardization of society, ‘the only plausible present-day minimum programme for the working class challenges for the first time the whole of productive activity that has hitherto existed. This challenge will abolish work. And in so doing it will abolish class domination.’ This was the basis of Workers and Capital’s admonishment of socialism, along with capitalism: both were systems that viewed ‘society as a means and production as an end’. In ‘all the upheavals of the past’, Tronti noted, ‘the type of productive activity was left intact. It has always exclusively been a question of the distribution of productive activity, redistributing labour to new groups of people’. To abolish work did not mean eradicating productive activity tout court, but it implied the difficult – perhaps impossible – task of dismantling an economy where the end of production was production itself. Only then would the ground be laid for a world with many ends.

The call for a ‘working-class struggle against work’ became a slogan, some would say a cliché, embraced by the new generations dreaming of a life free from drudgery, who often came into conflict with the PCI. But although it was among the emerging social movements that Workers and Capital found its most devoted readers, Tronti was not aiming to assemble a ‘new left’, nor did he endorse any of the myriad groupuscules operating outside the Communist Party. He was critical of the PCI’s ‘national-popular’ path and of the institutions of the classical workers’ movement (capitalism, he observed, ‘no longer manages its own ideology but has the workers’ movement manage it in its stead’). But he continued to believe in the need for a left government in the interest of workers, and for a mass politics anchored in parliament. Alluding to Machiavelli, Tronti insisted late in life that ‘the class remained the Prince, the primacy was still the struggle, but in order to try to give them a winning outcome, the instrument of the party was needed.’

In the 1990s, Tronti became a senator for the Partito Democratico, the successor to the Partito Democratico della Sinistra, which had evolved out of the dissolution of the PCI in 1991. His elevation to the commanding heights of the political apparatus was an emblem of what the workers’ movement had achieved during the economic boom of the postwar era. Yet by this time, deregulation and globalization had undermined the use of legislative power for progressive reforms, and many old comrades criticized Tronti for failing to appreciate that parliament was an ineffectual arena for social change. In another operaist journal, Contropiano (1968–71), Tronti had written that there is ‘capitalist economic development on the one hand and workers’ political power on the other – two forces . . . in a long war in which we can see neither the end nor who the victor will be.’ Ultimately, he seemed to accept that capitalist development had triumphed. In a late interview he came close to embracing failure: ‘I am defeated, not a victor. The victories are never final. But we have lost – not a battle – but the war of the twentieth century.’


Despite its lasting fame, Workers and Capital has often been interpreted as belonging to a distinct, operaist phase of Tronti’s work. His early interest in working-class subjectivity and his optimism about the industrial militancy of the sixties are sometimes contrasted with his later emphasis on what he termed ‘the autonomy of the political’: the need to consolidate the struggles in the factories through the power of the state, passing laws defending the interests of workers against the imperatives of the market – instituting worker self-management, shortening the working day, raising wages. Yet as students of Tronti’s work such as Franco Milanesi and Gigi Roggero remind us, this overlooks the essential unity of his oeuvre. As Tronti himself would later insist, it was operaismo that ‘discovered the autonomy of the political’. Meanwhile, the political realism, even pessimism, made explicit toward the end of his career, was firmly rooted in his early writings. One member of Classe Operaia, Rita di Leo, recalled Tronti remarking to her in 1966 that ‘We are left to explain, you why capitalism keeps winning, and I why socialism still cannot make it.’ In a 2001 preface to Workers and Capital, he insisted that ‘in spite of everything, in spite of the transition through the culture of crisis, of European nihilism, of the artistic avant-gardes of the 20th century, there was still too much historicism, too much progressivism, too much faith in the final victory of good over evil’ in what he enigmatically called the domain of history.

Yet if his pessimism was latent from the outset, the utopian strain in Tronti’s thinking endured, even as he appeared to concede an utter defeat. Tronti postulated a ‘choice between history and politics: two legitimate horizons, but which each stand for a different class’. Capitalist history is nothing but the development of the global market; politics, on the other hand, is the attempt to arrest its course according to the needs and desires of the exploited. Tronti insisted that ‘politics stands against history’, and never stopped hoping for an organization that could subdue ‘the rhythm of the machine’. To stand with one’s back against the future, as Walter Benjamin had pictured it, facing what Tronti called the ‘body of history’ was for him ‘the soul of politics’. History has no soul, since souls – interior lives – belong to individuals, and in a world of dashed expectations and numbing alienation, our inner lives become political precisely because we are trapped in a history that promises no way out.

This anti-historicist line of thought had paved the way for Tronti’s studies of anthropology and theology beginning in the 1980s. His turn to theology may seem surprising given his rebuke of what he saw as the eschatological fantasies and millenarian expectations of the 1960s, though he was not alone among operaists in finding inspiration here. Negri lauded John Paul II and has often returned in his work to the Second Vatican Council and Francis of Assisi, while Sergio Bologna wrote a dissertation, recently reissued, on the antifascism of the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a founder of the dissident Protestant movement Die Bekennende Kirche in 1930s Germany. In a discussion in 1980, Angelo Bolaffi noted that the weakness of the left consisted in the fact that it had produced a ‘theology of revolution’. To this Tronti responded without hesitation: ‘Precisely because there has been a failure of revolution in the West, revolution has become theology.’ For Tronti, theology was an attempt to rethink the possibility of politics in a period that offered no salvation, and to find meaning amid exploitation, suffering and the seemingly quixotic attempts to resist them.

Writing in Bailamme, a journal of spirituality and politics Tronti launched in 1987, he clarified the spirit of his anti-historicist politics by quoting the theologian Sergio Quinzio: ‘The meaning of this whole historical adventure is in its progress towards destruction so that the kingdom of God may be established’. This kingdom, which in the Gospel of Luke is said to be ‘within you’, was for Tronti a specific way to view and engage with the world. By this point, his perspective had also expanded beyond industrial capitalism to the longue durée of class oppression; he became increasingly interested in the category of the poor. Memory also became important for him: as a ‘weapon’, a means ‘to combat the present’, by linking us, not to history itself – the way things turned out – but to prior attempts to alter its course, inspiring us to change the present even if we cannot yet discern a better future.

Simone Weil once remarked that the Marxian notion that mass struggle was a ‘paradise-producing mechanism’ is ‘obviously childish’. In 2019 Tronti reflected that if the operaisti had initially been ‘outside and against’ the traditional workers’ movement, and then ‘inside and against it’, it was now time for a posture of ‘beyond and against’ – to transcend the conflicts between Western capitalism and Eastern socialism, something the PCI always refused to do. He wrote that ‘the working class was too much a product and part of industry, too much cause and negation of modernity, too much thesis and antithesis of a historical dialectic’ to resist capitalist development. The workers’ movement had never sought to alter ‘the type of productive activity’ that Tronti thought had rendered the socialism of the 20th century a terrible copy of capitalism. In an essay collected in Con la spalle al futuro (1992) he even suggested that ‘perhaps the working class couldn’t become a ruling class. And, consequently, perhaps the insurmountable limit of the experiment of socialism is not found in the backwardness of material conditions, in the isolation of the project, in the reality of war, internal and external, and much less in the iniquity or mediocrity of men’. The problem might be that it is impossible to rule over history.

Yet if, as Weil also suggested, ‘the idea of weakness as such can be a force’ – visible in the need of masses and minorities to struggle for their dignity – it might be possible to view victory and failure in a different way, one suggested by Tronti’s work taken as a whole. He was a speculative and in a sense even mystical thinker, who maintained that in a world where capitalism never seems to move beyond itself, an escape might nevertheless be found. The conflicts between ‘the body of history’ and ‘the soul of politics’ – over the meaning of our lives and the systems of production and reproduction that shape our existence – might not promise salvation. But they can, according to Tronti, produce a people who do not care for victory in this kingdom of history where only the rich and powerful count. The remnants of lost utopias can still confront the forces that reduce the end of productive activity to production itself. To embrace failure, then, is not to give up, but to reject the nihilistic idea that the good life is a victorious life, rather than one that begins to reshape our idea of happiness in the here and now.

Read on: Mario Tronti, ‘Our Operaismo’, NLR 73.