Workers’ inquiry: a genealogy

Workers’ inquiry: a genealogy

Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi's exhaustive look at 'workers' inquiries' and how they were practiced and theorized by the Johnson-Forest Tendency, Socialisme Ou Barbarie and operaismo groups.

Exact and Pos­i­tive Knowl­edge: Marx’s Questionnaire

In 1880, La Revue social­iste asked an aging Karl Marx to draft a ques­tion­naire to be cir­cu­lated among the French work­ing class. Called “A Work­ers’ Inquiry,” it was a list of exactly 101 detailed ques­tions, inquir­ing about every­thing from meal times to wages to lodg­ing.1 On a closer look, there seems to be a pro­gres­sion in the line of ques­tion­ing. The first quar­ter or so ask seem­ingly dis­in­ter­ested ques­tions about the trade, the com­po­si­tion of the work­force employed at the firm, and the gen­eral con­di­tions of the shop, while the final quar­ter gen­er­ally shifts to more explic­itly polit­i­cal ques­tions about oppres­sion, “resis­tance asso­ci­a­tions,” and strikes.

The ques­tion­naire began with a few prefa­tory reflec­tions on the project as a whole. These fif­teen or so lines basi­cally amounted to a sin­gle prin­ci­ple: learn­ing from the work­ing class itself. Only the work­ing class could pro­vide mean­ing­ful infor­ma­tion on its own exis­tence, just as only the work­ing class itself could build the new world. But behind this sim­ple call lay a num­ber of com­plex moti­va­tions, objec­tives, and inten­tions, mak­ing work­ers’ inquiry – this seem­ingly mod­est desire to learn from the work­ers – a highly ambigu­ous, mul­ti­fac­eted, and inde­ter­mi­nate project from the very start.

At its most rudi­men­tary level, work­ers’ inquiry was to be the empir­i­cal study of work­ers, a com­monly neglected object of inves­ti­ga­tion at the time. “Not a sin­gle gov­ern­ment, whether monar­chy or bour­geois repub­lic, has yet ven­tured to under­take a seri­ous inquiry into the posi­tion of the French work­ing class,” Marx lamented. “But what a num­ber of inves­ti­ga­tions have been under­taken into crises – agri­cul­tural, finan­cial, indus­trial, com­mer­cial, political!”

Since these other forms of inves­ti­ga­tion – like those end­less gov­ern­ment inquiries into this or that cri­sis – sim­ply could not pro­duce any real knowl­edge of the work­ing class, some new form of inves­ti­ga­tion had to be devel­oped. Its objec­tive, as those hun­dred ques­tions reveal, would be to amass as much fac­tual mate­r­ial about work­ers as pos­si­ble. The goal, Marx wrote, should be to acquire “an exact and pos­i­tive knowl­edge of the con­di­tions in which the work­ing class – the class to whom the future belongs – works and moves.”

Of course, even in Marx’s time, health inspec­tors and oth­ers had already begun to under­take this kind of inves­ti­ga­tion into the world of the work­ing class. But not only were these offi­cial inves­ti­ga­tions unsys­tem­atic and par­tial, they treated work­ers as mere objects of study, in the man­ner of the soil and seeds of those well-investigated agri­cul­tural crises. What set worker’s inquiry apart from these other empir­i­cal stud­ies was the belief that the work­ing class itself knew more about cap­i­tal­ist exploita­tion than any­one else. It is the “work­ers in town and coun­try,” Marx thought, who “alone can describe with full knowl­edge the mis­for­tunes from which they suffer.”

With this brief inter­ven­tion, Marx estab­lished a fun­da­men­tal epis­te­mo­log­i­cal chal­lenge. What was the rela­tion­ship between the work­ers’ knowl­edge of their exploita­tion, and the sci­en­tific analy­sis of the “laws of motion” of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety? In Cap­i­tal, he devoted many pages to doc­u­ment­ing the labor process, yet this seemed to be part of a log­i­cal expo­si­tion which began with the crit­i­cal expo­si­tion of value, an abstract cat­e­gory of bour­geois polit­i­cal econ­omy. He nev­er­the­less main­tained in his 1873 after­word that “In so far as such a cri­tique rep­re­sents a class, it can only rep­re­sent the class whose his­tor­i­cal task is the over­throw of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion and the final abo­li­tion of all classes – the pro­le­tariat.”2 Louis Althusser, in his famous Pref­ace to the French trans­la­tion, sug­gested that this meant that Cap­i­tal could only be under­stood from a specif­i­cally pro­le­tar­ian view­point, since that is “the only view­point which makes vis­i­ble the real­ity of the exploita­tion of wage labour power, which con­sti­tutes the whole of cap­i­tal­ism.”3 Yet Marx’s own view remains unclear. Was work­ers’ inquiry a means of access­ing the pro­le­tar­ian view­point? Was it sim­ply the work­ers’ par­tic­i­pa­tion in gen­er­at­ing a uni­ver­sal knowledge?

What is abun­dantly clear is that Marx had a high esti­ma­tion of the autonomous activ­ity of the work­ing class. Not only would work­ers pro­vide knowl­edge about the nature of cap­i­tal­ism, they would be the only ones who could over­throw it: only the work­ers in town and coun­try, “and not sav­iors sent by prov­i­dence, can ener­get­i­cally apply the heal­ing reme­dies for the social ills which they are prey.” This prac­tice of work­ers’ inquiry, then, implied a cer­tain con­nec­tion between pro­le­tar­ian knowl­edge and pro­le­tar­ian pol­i­tics. Social­ists would begin by learn­ing from the work­ing class about its own mate­r­ial con­di­tions. Only then would they be able to artic­u­late strate­gies, com­pose the­o­ries, and draft pro­grams. Inquiry would there­fore be the nec­es­sary first step in artic­u­lat­ing a his­tor­i­cally appro­pri­ate social­ist project.

The prac­tice of dis­sem­i­nat­ing the inquiry also rep­re­sented a step towards orga­niz­ing this project, by estab­lish­ing direct links with work­ers. “It is not essen­tial to reply to every ques­tion,” Marx wrote. “The name of the work­ing man or woman who is reply­ing will not be pub­lished with­out spe­cial per­mis­sion but the name and address should be given so that if nec­es­sary we can send com­mu­ni­ca­tion.” For some, this attempt to forge real con­tacts with the work­ers was in fact a gen­uine inten­tion of the project.

Of course, Marx men­tions noth­ing about build­ing orga­ni­za­tions in this short arti­cle. How­ever, he would later indi­cate that research and orga­ni­za­tion had a close rela­tion­ship. In 1881, just a year after pen­ning this ques­tion­naire, Marx received a let­ter from a young social­ist who wanted to know what he thought about the recent calls to refound the Inter­na­tional Workingmen’s Asso­ci­a­tion. Marx revealed that he was opposed to this project. The “crit­i­cal junc­ture” for such an asso­ci­a­tion had not arrived, and attempt­ing to form one would be “not merely use­less but harm­ful,” since it would not be “related to the imme­di­ate given con­di­tions in this or that par­tic­u­lar nation.”4

So any orga­ni­za­tion had to be tied to con­crete his­tor­i­cal con­di­tions. We can con­clude from Marx’s enthu­si­as­tic response to La Revue social­iste that he granted a strate­gic role to research; in this spe­cific con­junc­ture, inquiry was a more appro­pri­ate mea­sure than launch­ing an orga­ni­za­tion, and was per­haps even its precondition.

Marx died a few years after this first stab at inquiry, never receiv­ing a sin­gle response. But the project would have a remark­able after­life in the fol­low­ing cen­tury. As we pull away from Marx’s orig­i­nal blue­print to sur­vey the much longer his­tory of work­ers’ inquiry, it is hard not to notice the remark­able insta­bil­ity of this prac­tice. Though nearly every exam­ple touches the coor­di­nates first devel­oped by Marx, inquiry has been pol­y­semic and con­tra­dic­tory. This intro­duc­tion will sur­vey its devel­op­ment as a way of inves­ti­gat­ing its under­ly­ing questions.

Rais­ing Con­scious­ness: The Johnson-Forest Tendency

While fig­ures like Pierre Nav­ille and Simone Weil had ear­lier pub­lished first­hand accounts of fac­tory life, Marx’s project was only truly rein­car­nated in 1947, when the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency released a short pam­phlet called The Amer­i­can Worker. Named after the pseu­do­nyms of its two prin­ci­pal the­o­rists, CLR James (J.R. John­son), the Trinida­dian author of The Black Jacobins, and Raya Dunayevskaya (Fred­die For­est), Leon Trotsky’s one­time assis­tant, the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency first emerged in 1941 as an oppo­si­tional cur­rent within the Trot­sky­ist Work­ers’ Party. In 1947, the year they spon­sored their first inquiry, this mar­ginal though respected cur­rent left the WP over what was then known as the “Negro Ques­tion.” While the Work­ers’ Party argued for a sin­gle, broad, mul­tira­cial move­ment orga­nized under the slo­gan “Black and White, Unite and Fight,” the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency coun­tered that the black com­mu­nity had its own spe­cific needs, which could not be peremp­to­rily sub­sumed under such a homog­e­niz­ing move­ment, and along with other oppressed minori­ties should strug­gle for its own auton­omy.5

In 1951, after break­ing from Trot­sky­ism alto­gether, the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency formed Cor­re­spon­dence, with a news­pa­per of the same name.6 Cor­re­spon­dence, whose first issue was released that Novem­ber, was to be a new kind of paper. Prin­ci­pally writ­ten, edited, and dis­trib­uted by work­ers them­selves, it was intended to serve as a forum in which work­ers could share their own expe­ri­ences. Reflect­ing the Tendency’s con­tin­ued empha­sis on the pri­macy of autonomous needs, each issue was delib­er­ately divided into four sec­tions – for fac­tory work­ers, blacks, youth, and women – so that each sec­tor of the broader work­ing class would have its own inde­pen­dent space to dis­cuss what con­cerned them most. The hope was that in writ­ing about their lives, work­ers would come to see that their prob­lems were not per­sonal, but social. A 1955 edi­to­r­ial titled “Gripes and Griev­ances” stated the pur­pose of the paper: “When mil­lions of work­ers are express­ing the same gripe about their job, the fore­man, the union, and the com­pany, it is no longer a gripe, it becomes a social prob­lem. That gripe or griev­ance no longer affects just this or that indi­vid­ual, it affects all of soci­ety.”7 The objec­tive of the paper, then, was to make peo­ple real­ize the uni­ver­sal­ity of their seem­ingly par­tic­u­lar expe­ri­ences, by pro­vid­ing a space where they could be dis­sem­i­nated. Draw­ing an anal­ogy to polio, which, they claimed, was once con­sid­ered a per­sonal prob­lem before being accepted as a social con­cern, the edi­tors argued that the whole point of Cor­re­spon­dence was to change pub­lic atti­tudes on deci­sive ques­tions. The goal of the work­ers’ paper, to put it another way, was to raise consciousness.

This news­pa­per was in many ways a log­i­cal con­tin­u­a­tion of the Tendency’s ear­lier efforts at inquiry. The first and per­haps most famous of these was The Amer­i­can Worker. Grace Lee Boggs, a co-author of the pam­phlet, recalls that it first began as a diary. When Phil Singer, an auto worker employed in a New Jer­sey GM plant, began to dis­cuss the frus­tra­tions of the rank and file at the fac­tory, CLR James sug­gested that he write his thoughts down in a diary.8 Sec­tions of it were later assem­bled into a coher­ent piece, and paired with a the­o­ret­i­cal essay by Grace Lee Boggs. The first part of the pam­phlet, now attrib­uted to Paul Romano, Singer’s pseu­do­nym, became a kind of self-reflexive ethno­graphic inves­ti­ga­tion into the con­di­tions of pro­le­tar­ian life in post­war Amer­ica. The sec­ond part, attrib­uted to Ria Stone, Boggs’s party name, con­sciously drew on the con­crete expe­ri­ences doc­u­mented in the first part in order to the­o­rize the con­tent of social­ism in a world changed by automa­tion, the assem­bly line, and semi-skilled labor.

When Social­isme ou Bar­barie later trans­lated the pam­phlet into French, they called it the “first of its genre.”9 A worker was describ­ing, in his own voice and explic­itly for other work­ers, his con­di­tions of exploita­tion in a way that the­o­rized the pos­si­bil­ity of its strate­gic over­throw.10 Singer’s account rep­re­sented both research into the changes in the labor process, as well as a polit­i­cal prac­tice aimed at rais­ing the con­scious­ness of his co-workers. He steadily moved from sta­tic descrip­tions of exploita­tion in the fac­tory to a dynamic con­sid­er­a­tion of the new forms of strug­gle that had emerged out of those forms of exploita­tion. Sur­vey­ing the con­tra­dic­tions in the work­place, the var­i­ous points of con­tes­ta­tion, and signs of pro­le­tar­ian dis­gust with man­age­ment, bureau­cracy, and even unions, Singer pointed to the wild­cat strike, with work­ers’ self-management as its con­tent, as the new form of strug­gle in the post­war period.

While Phil Singer pro­vided the first exam­ple of this new kind of work­ers’ inquiry, Grace Lee Boggs laid out the Johnson-Forest Tendency’s the­o­ret­i­cal prob­lem­atic. She drew heav­ily on a pas­sage from Cap­i­tal that described how the “par­tially devel­oped indi­vid­ual,” who was restricted to “one spe­cial­ized social func­tion,” had to be replaced in large-scale indus­try by the “totally devel­oped indi­vid­ual” who could adapt to vary­ing forms of labor.11 Read­ing this in light of Marx’s ear­lier works, prin­ci­pally the Eco­nomic and Philo­soph­i­cal Man­u­scripts of 1844, which Boggs her­self was the first to trans­late into Eng­lish, she took this to mean that mod­ern indus­try in post­war Amer­ica had now real­ized the com­plete alien­ation of human nature.

Accord­ing to Boggs, cap­i­tal­ism was to be under­stood as the pro­gres­sive alien­ation of humanity’s nat­ural pow­ers into the things it pro­duces. Even­tu­ally, how­ever, this process will reach a point where all of human­ity, all of its social essence, has been fully alien­ated into the means of pro­duc­tion. But this thor­ough­go­ing dehu­man­iza­tion of the indi­vi­ual, she argues, is at the same time the poten­tial human­iza­tion of the world in its entirety. It is at that point that the objec­tive con­di­tions will finally be ripe to reclaim those pow­ers, recover human essence, and defin­i­tively recon­sti­tute the indi­vid­ual as a uni­ver­sal being. In her words, “Abstract labor reaches its most inhu­man depths in machine pro­duc­tion. But at the same time, it is only machine pro­duc­tion which lays the basis for the fullest human devel­op­ment of con­crete labor.”12

“The essen­tial con­tent of pro­duc­tive activ­ity today is the coop­er­a­tive form of the labor process,” Boggs con­cluded. In “the trans­for­ma­tion of the instru­ments of labor into instru­ments of labor only usable in com­mon” and “the economis­ing of all means of pro­duc­tion by their use as the means of pro­duc­tion of com­bined, social­ized labor,” cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion had reached the point where it was now implic­itly already social­ist. How­ever, the real­iza­tion of this implicit social­ism was blocked:

The bour­geoisie main­tains a fet­ter on this essen­tially social activ­ity by iso­lat­ing indi­vid­u­als from one another through com­pe­ti­tion, by sep­a­rat­ing the intel­lec­tual pow­ers of pro­duc­tion from the man­ual labor, by sup­press­ing the cre­ative orga­ni­za­tional tal­ents of the broad masses, by divid­ing the world up into spheres of influence.

This con­flict between the invad­ing social­ist soci­ety and the bour­geois fet­ters pre­vent­ing its emer­gence is part of the daily expe­ri­ence of every worker.”13

Inter­est­ingly, this con­cept had emerged in a pam­phlet that James, Dunayevskaya, and Boggs wrote the same year, with the title The Invad­ing Social­ist Soci­ety – a polemic against Trot­sky­ists who did not share their view that the USSR rep­re­sented a new form of cap­i­tal­ism. The pam­phlet elab­o­rates on some of the the­o­ret­i­cal pre­sup­po­si­tions of The Amer­i­can Worker, in which Boggs had defended “the dis­tinc­tion between abstract labor for value and con­crete labor for human needs.” For Boggs, Marx’s def­i­n­i­tion of “value pro­duc­tion” was “pro­duc­tion which expanded itself through degra­da­tion and dehu­man­iza­tion of the worker to a frag­ment of a man,” which in its use of machin­ery “degrades to abstract labor the liv­ing worker which it employs.” Con­crete labor was instead directed towards needs, “the labor in which man real­izes his basic human need for exer­cis­ing his nat­ural and acquired pow­ers.”14

In The Invad­ing Social­ist Soci­ety, the authors argued that value pro­duc­tion was clearly at work in Russ­ian “state cap­i­tal­ism,” just as it was in the United States, and they elab­o­rated on the “dual char­ac­ter” of labor Boggs had described in the other pamphlet:

Labor’s fun­da­men­tal, its eter­nally nec­es­sary func­tion in all soci­eties, past, present and future, was to cre­ate use-values. Into this organic func­tion of all labor, cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion imposed the con­tra­dic­tion of pro­duc­ing value, and more par­tic­u­larly surplus-value. Within this con­tra­dic­tion is con­tained the neces­sity for the divi­sion of soci­ety into direct pro­duc­ers (work­ers) and rulers of soci­ety, into man­ual and intel­lec­tual laborers.

The man­age­r­ial rev­o­lu­tion, in this con­cep­tion, was sim­ply an expres­sion of value pro­duc­tion and the class divi­sion between man­ual and intel­lec­tual labor. If this class divi­sion and this kind of alien­at­ing labor process could be observed in Rus­sia, there was only one con­clu­sion: the state bureau­cracy extracted sur­plus value from Russ­ian work­ers, and was in fact a cap­i­tal­ist class.

The pro­le­tariat, they went on to argue, had been dis­abused of all the illu­sions of bureau­cratic van­guards, which had sim­ply insti­tuted a new form of cap­i­tal­ism, and reformism, which lim­ited itself to con­test­ing the dis­tri­b­u­tion of surplus-value. Now the pro­le­tariat had “drawn the ulti­mate con­clu­sion”: “The revolt is against value pro­duc­tion itself.” The invad­ing social­ist soci­ety, for James, Dunayevskaya, and Boggs, could be observed in this real­iza­tion.15

The polit­i­cal moti­va­tion of this the­ory may have been under­stand­able, but it led the group to use Marx’s cat­e­gories in a way that dis­solved their his­tor­i­cal speci­ficity. Two decades ear­lier I.I. Rubin, at the close of a period of rel­a­tively free debate in the Soviet Union, had explained in a lec­ture at the Insti­tute for Eco­nom­ics in Moscow that a “con­cept of labour which lacks all the fea­tures which are char­ac­ter­is­tic of its social organ­i­sa­tion in com­mod­ity pro­duc­tion, can­not lead to the con­clu­sion which we seek from the Marx­ian stand­point.” In his elab­o­ra­tion of Marx’s con­cepts Rubin asked directly whether the value-form could be observed in a planned econ­omy, in which some social organ had to equate labor which pro­duced dif­fer­ent things and was under­taken by dif­fer­ent indi­vid­u­als. While this social equa­tion was often described as “abstrac­tion” in some gen­eral sense, Rubin dis­tin­guished it from Marx’s con­cept of abstract labor. In all his­tor­i­cal epochs, Rubin con­ceded, human beings have engaged in a phys­i­o­log­i­cal expen­di­ture of effort to repro­duce their con­di­tions of exis­tence. But Marx’s value the­ory set out to explain cer­tain his­tor­i­cally spe­cific char­ac­ter­is­tics of cap­i­tal­ist commodity-producing soci­eties. In such soci­eties the labor of indi­vid­u­als, as con­crete labor which pro­duces use-values, is not “directly reg­u­lated by the soci­ety” – in con­trast to a soci­ety in which social equa­tion is done on the basis of the planned allo­ca­tion of those use-values.16

In commodity-producing soci­eties, labor is only socially equated when the prod­ucts of indi­vid­ual labor­ers are “assim­i­lated with the prod­ucts of all the other com­mod­ity pro­duc­ers, and the labour of a spe­cific indi­vid­ual is thus assim­i­lated with the labour of all the other mem­bers of the soci­ety and all the oth­ers kinds of labour.” And cru­cially, this social equa­tion only hap­pens “through the equa­tion of the prod­ucts of labour”; labor “only takes the form of abstract labour, and the prod­ucts of labour the form of val­ues, to the extent that the pro­duc­tion process assumes the social form of com­mod­ity pro­duc­tion, i.e. pro­duc­tion based on exchange.” When com­mod­ity own­ers in cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties engage in pro­duc­tion, they do so seek­ing to “trans­form their prod­uct into money and thus also trans­form their pri­vate and con­crete labour into social and abstract labour,” since they depend on the mar­ket for their con­di­tions of exis­tence. It is through the medi­a­tion of the mar­ket that these pri­vate labor expen­di­tures take on a social form.17

From the van­tage point of Rubin’s inter­ven­tion, the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency had ended up align­ing itself with those Soviet econ­o­mists who believed that value was a tran­shis­tor­i­cal cat­e­gory, reducible to the social equa­tion of labor that would exist in any soci­ety and nec­es­sar­ily take the same form in social­ist plan­ning as it did in a cap­i­tal­ist mar­ket. Their attempt to show that the USSR, despite its plan­ning of pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion, com­peted on the world mar­ket and there­fore had the char­ac­ter­is­tics of a huge cap­i­tal­ist enter­prise, sim­ply dodged the ques­tion of the exchange of the prod­ucts of labor as an expres­sion of the mar­ket depen­dence of individuals.

Of course, Rubin did not address the ques­tion of whether the plan­ning organ of a social­ist soci­ety was a party bureau­cracy, a work­ers’ coun­cil, or any­thing else. While this dis­tinc­tion would cer­tainly be of polit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance, it has no bear­ing on the ques­tions of abstract labor and value. In its under­stand­able drive to crit­i­cize the oppres­sive char­ac­ter of work in the USSR, the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency had lost grip on its own crit­i­cal con­cepts, and above all, by reduc­ing the value-form to alien­ation in the labor-process, com­pletely mud­dled the dis­tinc­tion between abstract and con­crete labor. In this regard inquiry had a tense rela­tion­ship to Marx­ist the­ory; shift­ing towards the doc­u­men­ta­tion of work­ers’ expe­ri­ence, the sub­jec­tive expe­ri­ence of the shop floor, the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency accepted and inverted the ortho­dox eco­nomic world­view of their adver­saries, leav­ing it more or less intact.

And by accept­ing the tran­shis­tor­i­cal con­cep­tion of the cat­e­gories of labor and value, social­ism itself took on tran­shis­tor­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics. It was a telos already con­tained in the ori­gin, in human nature which alien­ated itself in machin­ery. The task of social­ists was to uncover it by cast­ing aside the cap­i­tal­ist fet­ters. Accord­ing to this view, social­ism would not have to be con­structed; it would have to be real­ized. We can iden­tify a kind of dou­ble mean­ing to this term: on the one hand, social­ism as an inher­ent ten­dency would have to be made “real,” or actual, and on the other hand, social­ism could be actu­al­ized only when those work­ers cur­rently engaged in these embry­onic social­ist rela­tions grad­u­ally came to rec­og­nize, or “real­ize,” that social­ism already con­sti­tuted the very essence of post­war capitalism.

This con­cep­tion of social­ism was a com­men­tary on Singer’s expe­ri­ences inso­far as work­ers’ inquiry was the means of this real­iza­tion. It was through inquiry that work­ers would come to “real­ize” that social­ism was already there, hid­den in their every­day lives, wait­ing to burst forth. In cir­cu­lat­ing these inquiries, other work­ers with sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences would come to the same real­iza­tion, spark­ing a dia­logue over their uni­ver­sal expe­ri­ences. In this way the work­ers would become con­scious of them­selves as a rev­o­lu­tion­ary class. The prin­ci­pal task of the orga­ni­za­tion, first as the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency, and then as Cor­re­spon­dence, would be to facil­i­tate this coming-to-consciousness by cre­at­ing a space where con­nec­tions or “cor­re­spon­dences” between dif­fer­ent work­ers could be made.

Inquiry, then, was the cor­ner­stone of this project. Grace Lee Boggs had the­o­rized it, and Phil Singer had pro­vided the first con­crete exam­ple. The Amer­i­can Worker would there­fore emerge as a kind of par­a­digm. In 1952 Si Owens pub­lished Indig­nant Heart: A Black Worker’s Jour­nal, under the pseu­do­nym of Matthew Ward. It was much longer, in fact prac­ti­cally a book, and was explic­itly auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal. It told the story of how a young black worker moved from the cot­ton fields of Ten­nessee to the auto­mo­bile plants of Detroit and became a mil­i­tant, a rad­i­cal force within the United Auto­mo­bile Work­ers of Amer­ica. In 1953 “Arthur Bau­man,” the pseu­do­nym of an anony­mous stu­dent, recounted his story to Paul Wal­lis in what would become Artie Cuts Out, a nar­ra­tive, again in the style of Singer’s The Amer­i­can Worker, about high school stu­dents in New York. Also that year, Correspondence’s best­selling pam­phlet, A Woman’s Place by Marie Brant (Selma James) and Ellen San­tori (Filom­ena D’Addario), made its first appear­ance. What Singer did for fac­tory work­ers, Owens for black work­ers, and Bau­man for the youth, James and D’Addario sought to do for house­wives. A Woman’s Place dis­cussed the role of house­work, the value of repro­duc­tive labor, and the orga­ni­za­tions autonomously invented by women in the course of their struggle.

Fol­low­ing Singer’s model and Boggs’s the­o­ret­i­cal frame, all of them drew on the every­day expe­ri­ences of the author in order to rig­or­ously inves­ti­gate the social con­di­tions of a par­tic­u­lar class fig­ure; they then used that inquiry to the­o­rize how that frag­mented social group might come together as a col­lec­tive polit­i­cal sub­ject. The objec­tive in all of these – as it would later be for the Cor­re­spon­dence news­pa­per – was to show how seem­ingly per­sonal expe­ri­ences were actu­ally social. The under­ly­ing assump­tion of these inquiries was that what one par­tic­u­lar worker felt some­where is very sim­i­lar to what another might feel else­where, and that these shared expe­ri­ences, these com­mon ways of liv­ing, can pro­vide the ground­work for col­lec­tive action.18

Of course, it should be noted that nei­ther The Amer­i­can Worker nor any of these other texts ever called itself a work­ers’ inquiry. Indeed, they could just be called worker nar­ra­tives, or per­haps even tes­ti­monies.19But they should all still be seen as rep­re­sent­ing an iter­a­tion, or at least a vari­a­tion, of the project Marx laid out in 1880. The Ten­dency was quite famil­iar with Marx’s 1880 arti­cle.20 Boggs had read it, and made an explicit ref­er­ence to it in a foot­note in her sec­tion of The Amer­i­can Worker.21 And despite sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences, these inquiries, espe­cially The Amer­i­can Worker, repro­duced many of the inten­tions, moti­va­tions, and objec­tives of Marx’s orig­i­nal project. In fact, read­ing Marx’s ques­tions along­side The Amer­i­can Worker, it seems as though Singer had pro­vided Marx with the first, com­pre­hen­sive response to his ques­tion­naire – it was just sev­eral decades late.

But Singer’s response took a form that Marx did not antic­i­pate. Marx imag­ined that work­ers would offer line-by-line answers to his ques­tion­naire. “In replies,” he made sure to spec­ify, “the num­ber of the cor­re­spond­ing ques­tion should be given.” Singer, how­ever, did not pro­duce a neat list of bul­leted responses; he crafted these raw answers into a lit­er­ary nar­ra­tive. This was per­haps the most dis­tinc­tive fea­ture of all the inquiries spon­sored by the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency – and per­haps one of the main rea­sons why they were never for­mally called “work­ers’ inquiries.” Work­ers’ inquiry, in this vari­a­tion, was specif­i­cally a sub­jec­tive nar­ra­tive account, not a response to a questionnaire.

This inno­va­tion in the genre of inquiry, how­ever, ampli­fied ten­sions already embed­ded in the orig­i­nal project. On the one hand, the nar­ra­tive form worked to advance inquiry as a form of pro­le­tar­ian self-activity. Although Marx made it clear that knowl­edge of the work­ing class could only be pro­duced by work­ers them­selves, his orig­i­nal project seemed to fore­close the space for any kind of cre­ative expres­sion, demand­ing mechan­i­cal answers to pre­fab­ri­cated ques­tions. Singer’s nar­ra­tive model allowed work­ers to raise their own unique voice, express them­selves in their own lan­guage, with their own idioms, ideas, and feel­ings, and even pose their own questions.

On the other hand, although priv­i­leg­ing the nar­ra­tive form might have ampli­fied the power of work­ers’ inquiry as a means of self-activity, it had the poten­tial to under­mine another of aspect of that project, what Marx called the acqui­si­tion of “an exact and pos­i­tive knowl­edge of the con­di­tions” of the work­ing class. The open­ness of the nar­ra­tive form exag­ger­ates a ten­dency to slip from mea­sured gen­er­al­iza­tion to unten­able over­gen­er­al­iza­tion. By try­ing to fuse his sub­jec­tiv­ity with that of the rank and file as a whole, Singer ends up attempt­ing to legit­imize him­self as a reli­able mouth­piece for all the work­ers in his fac­tory: “Their feel­ings, anx­i­eties, exhil­a­ra­tion, bore­dom, exhaus­tion, anger, have all been mine to one extent or another.”22 But as the text pro­ceeds, Singer qui­etly goes from “their feel­ings are mine” to “my feel­ings are theirs,” lead­ing the reader to believe that Singer’s per­sonal expe­ri­ences, desires, and opin­ions are actu­ally those of the GM rank and file itself – if not those of the entire Amer­i­can work­ing class. His expe­ri­ences, or those of some work­ers at his par­tic­u­lar plant, are pre­sented as the expe­ri­ences of all work­ers everywhere.

Allegedly com­mon daily expe­ri­ences are then gen­er­al­ized to uni­ver­sal polit­i­cal atti­tudes: “The work­ers feel that strikes merely for wages do not get them any­where.”23 This is a prob­lem shared by all the nar­ra­tive accounts, since they all repli­cate Singer’s model. In A Woman’s Place, for exam­ple, Selma James wrote, “The co-authors of this book­let have seen this in their own lives and in the lives of the women they know. They have writ­ten this down as a begin­ning of the expres­sion of what the aver­age woman feels, thinks, and lives.” One first won­ders whether there is such a thing as an “aver­age woman,” free from the com­pli­cat­ing dimen­sions of region, class, race, sex­u­al­ity, and so forth; but even if this uneasi­ness is set aside, one is still left to ask whether James’s own unique expe­ri­ences are enough to access “the aver­age.” In fact, James intro­duces another inno­va­tion that extends the reach of her gen­er­al­iza­tions. Her inquiry begins in the third per­son, but after only a few pages abruptly shifts to the sec­ond per­son. The pat­tern quickly repeats itself: “Every­thing a house­wife does, she does alone. All the work in the house is for you to do by your­self.”24

This kind of homog­e­niza­tion sup­ports, and is in fact sup­ported by, a decon­tex­tu­al­iza­tion of expe­ri­ence. Nearly all of these inquiries, with the slight excep­tion of Indig­nant Heart, go to great lengths to detach their nar­ra­tive from a spe­cific local­ity. There is noth­ing in The Amer­i­can Worker reveal­ing where Singer actu­ally works; the same goes for A Woman’s Place.25 If one of the pri­mary objec­tives of work­ers’ inquiry is to rig­or­ously study the con­di­tions of exploita­tion at spe­cific points of pro­duc­tion, to pro­duce a pos­i­tive and exact knowl­edge of the work­ing class, it must spec­ify the bound­aries of its inves­ti­ga­tion. Though fac­to­ries in post­war Amer­ica might have had some com­mon­al­i­ties, they were wildly dif­fer­ent, each with its dis­tinct con­di­tions of pro­duc­tion, power rela­tions, and demographics.

A closely related prob­lem is the delib­er­ate mod­i­fi­ca­tion of infor­ma­tion, in a way that often alters the mean­ing of the accounts. One imme­di­ate exam­ple results from the use of pseu­do­nyms. Nearly every­one in the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency had one, and most had sev­eral; in fact, there were so many fake names in cir­cu­la­tion, Boggs recalled that there were times when they them­selves didn’t even know who was who.26 This was partly a holdover from Trot­sky­ist prac­tices, but more seri­ously a secu­rity mea­sure against McCarthy­ism; at one point Cor­re­spon­dence had as many as 75 infil­tra­tors, and CLR James would later be deported because of his activ­i­ties with the group.27

But despite the jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for the prac­tice of assum­ing pseu­do­nyms, they pro­vided a cover for ambigu­ous author­ship. A Woman’s Place was signed by two women, both under pseu­do­nyms, but was actu­ally writ­ten only by Selma James. As James later recalled, she wrote the book by jot­ting down ideas on scraps of paper, then drop­ping them into a slit made in the top of a shoe box. She later sat down and pieced together the ideas into a draft. After she shared the draft with the group and her neigh­bors, and made some revi­sions, CLR James told her to include Filom­ena D’Addario’s sig­na­ture so that the lat­ter could speak about it to the pub­lic with some legit­i­macy.28 It turns out that a piece which claims to have been writ­ten by two women, and in fact tries to con­vince its read­ers that it was con­structed from the expe­ri­ences of two dif­fer­ent women, was actu­ally writ­ten by one.

But the most seri­ous trou­ble is in Indig­nant Heart. Of all the accounts, this is the only one to give pre­cise details about places, and so, at first glance, seems to break with the model devel­oped by Singer. In actual fact, how­ever, though the book is largely accu­rate regard­ing Owens’ later life in the North, it delib­er­ately dis­torts his place of birth, set­ting his child­hood in south­east Ten­nessee rather than in Lown­des County, Alabama. In the 1978 reprint, which included a sec­ond part pick­ing up where the orig­i­nal 1952 text left off, Owens jus­ti­fied this by remind­ing his read­ers of the “vicious McCarthyite witch hunt,” adding that “few who did not go through that expe­ri­ence of national repres­sion of ideas can fully under­stand the truly total­i­tar­ian nature of McCarthy­ism and the ter­ror it pro­duced.”29 Less con­vinc­ing, how­ever, is his claim that these changes “do not take any­thing away from the truth of the expe­ri­ences described,” and that what he wrote about his early years “could be true of almost all Blacks” liv­ing in the South­ern United States.30

In other words, the rewrit­ing of the facts is ratio­nal­ized by the assump­tion of a homo­ge­neous and uni­ver­sal expe­ri­ence. But Alabama is not Ten­nessee, and such a dras­tic move com­pro­mises the sci­en­tific char­ac­ter of the piece; it becomes more like his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, and less a con­crete inquiry into spe­cific con­di­tions of exploita­tion. An inquiry into the world of the work­ing class threat­ens to degen­er­ate into a kind of travel diary; close, metic­u­lous, mil­i­tant inves­ti­ga­tion tends to be replaced with enter­tain­ing sto­ries about the mys­tery, exoti­cism, and strange­ness of an unknown world.

Per­haps even more trou­bling, Si Owens did not actu­ally write Indig­nant Heart. Con­stance Webb, another mem­ber of the group, and James’s one­time lover, did. Cor­re­spon­dence cham­pi­oned a prac­tice which Dunayevskaya later called “the full foun­tain pen” method – though it is per­haps bet­ter known as amanu­en­sis. Intel­lec­tu­als would be paired with work­ers who might be uncom­fort­able writ­ing their expe­ri­ences; they would lis­ten as the work­ers recounted their story, write them down on their behalf, and then have these work­ers revise the writ­ten doc­u­ments as they saw fit. It was Webb, then, who recorded the story, made revi­sions, edited the drafts, and pieced it all together into a coher­ent whole.31 It was in many ways just as much her book.

But the lead­er­ship, in this case largely Dunayevskaya, and not the authors, decided how the book should appear. Dunayevskaya insisted that it be called Indig­nant Heart, after a quo­ta­tion by Wen­dell Phillips, over the protest of both Owens and Webb; and, even more seri­ously, she decided to pub­lish it all under the sin­gle name of Matthew Ward.32 In an odd way, Cor­re­spon­dence had delib­er­ately effaced its con­di­tions of pro­duc­tion, mak­ing it appear as though a sin­gle author had writ­ten the book by him­self, which was far from true. Yet one of orig­i­nal aims of Correspondence’s inquiries had been to hon­estly rec­on­cile the ten­sions between intel­lec­tu­als and work­ers. Why hes­i­tate in admit­ting that Indig­nant Heart had been, at its very core, a work of col­lab­o­ra­tion? Why go to such lengths to make the text look like an exam­ple of raw pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence, rather than a medi­ated production?

Finally, all these inquiries imbri­cate the descrip­tive with the pre­scrip­tive. They draw lim­ited con­clu­sions based on the analy­sis of observ­able phe­nom­ena while simul­ta­ne­ously mak­ing declar­a­tive state­ments about what real­ity should actu­ally look like. The trend was first set by Singer, who con­cluded the first part of The Amer­i­can Worker by announc­ing that the work­ers’ frus­tra­tion with the incen­tive sys­tem amounted to “no less than say­ing that the exist­ing pro­duc­tion rela­tions must be over­thrown.”33 In the same way, James ends her own inquiry, “Women are find­ing more and more that there is no way out but a com­plete change. But one thing is already clear. Things can’t go on the way they are. Every woman knows that.”34 Surely not all women actu­ally thought this in 1953. And surely James knew this, just as Singer was well aware that most work­ers did not want to over­throw exist­ing pro­duc­tion rela­tions. These state­ments can only really be under­stood as per­for­ma­tive – not descrip­tions of exist­ing sit­u­a­tion, but declar­a­tive moves seek­ing to trans­form what the text has already described. For a tra­di­tion which grounded itself in the rais­ing of con­scious­ness, these state­ments about the con­scious­ness of work­ers, dis­sem­i­nated to those work­ers them­selves, sought to become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Though all four of these inquires cer­tainly engage in sci­en­tific analy­sis, tak­ing note of new forms of pro­duc­tion, exploita­tion, and resis­tance, these obser­va­tions only seem to serve as the lit­er­ary back­ground for an unfold­ing nar­ra­tive, rather than serv­ing as inci­sive obser­va­tions into a par­tic­u­lar point of pro­duc­tion. All the ten­sions explored above work to seri­ously dimin­ish the spe­cific research value of these texts. But it is impor­tant to rec­og­nize that they only become prob­lems if one con­tin­ues to pri­or­i­tize the research func­tion of work­ers’ inquiry. If, how­ever, the objec­tive is to build class con­scious­ness, then the dis­tor­tions of the nar­ra­tive form are not prob­lems at all. They might actu­ally be quite nec­es­sary. With these nar­ra­tives, the ten­sion in Marx’s work­ers’ inquiry – between a research tool on the one hand, and a form of agi­ta­tion on the other – is largely resolved by sub­or­di­nat­ing the for­mer to the lat­ter, trans­form­ing inquiry into a means to the end of consciousness-building.

Build­ing the Cir­cuit: Social­isme ou Barbarie

These Amer­i­can exper­i­ments in work­ers’ inquiry res­onated quite broadly, becom­ing an explicit ref­er­ence point for one French group in par­tic­u­lar. Social­isme ou Bar­barie fol­lowed a remark­ably sim­i­lar tra­jec­tory to that of its Amer­i­can equiv­a­lents – the two groups were in con­tact, shar­ing their dis­cov­er­ies, trans­lat­ing each other’s work, and even co-authoring a book at one point. It began as the “Chaulieu-Montal Ten­dency,” an inter­nal cur­rent within the French sec­tion of the Trot­sky­ist Fourth Inter­na­tional, named after the pseu­do­nyms of its prin­ci­pal ani­ma­tors, Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis (Pierre Chaulieu) and Claude Lefort (Claude Mon­tal). Like the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency in the United States, the Chaulieu-Montal Ten­dency soon found itself opposed to the offi­cial Trot­sky­ist move­ment, prompt­ing a split in late 1948. About twenty mil­i­tants left to form a new orga­ni­za­tion, Social­isme ou Bar­barie, with a new jour­nal of the same name. The first issue was released in March of the fol­low­ing year.35

Like Cor­re­spon­dence, Social­isme ou Bar­barie placed a great deal of empha­sis on the notion of pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence. For both these groups, social­ist the­ory and strat­egy, even the very con­tent of social­ist project itself, could only be derived from the every­day expe­ri­ences of the work­ing class. Daniel Blan­chard, a for­mer mem­ber of Social­isme ou Bar­barie, has reflected on the organization’s con­cep­tion of a social­ist soci­ety: it would be “not the result of either utopian dream­ing, or of an alleged sci­ence of his­tory, but of the cre­ations of the work­ers move­ment. The pro­le­tariat is, by its prac­tice, the per­pet­ual inven­tor of rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory and the task of the intel­lec­tu­als is lim­ited to syn­the­siz­ing and sys­tem­atiz­ing it.“36

In this regard Social­isme ou Bar­barie con­tested the French Com­mu­nist Party (PCF) which held that social­ism had to be brought to the work­ing class from the out­side. For both Cor­re­spon­dence and Social­isme ou Bar­barie, on the other hand social­ism actu­ally came from within every­day pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ences. But these groups agreed that work­ers are largely social­ized by cap­i­tal­ism, and there­fore still marked by cap­i­tal­ist ide­ol­ogy, at least to some degree. Since almost no one was free of cap­i­tal­ist think­ing, social­ist con­scious­ness would not spon­ta­neously burst forth, even though it was always lurk­ing below. Cap­i­tal­ist ide­ol­ogy still had to be com­bated; and some other mech­a­nism was required to allow this latent con­scious­ness to appear.

That mech­a­nism was work­ers’ inquiry. So while the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency was the first to recode work­ers’ inquiry in the form of the worker nar­ra­tive, Social­isme ou Bar­barie explained why: the worker nar­ra­tive could express the pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence in such a way as to make its embed­ded social­ist con­tent appear.

Social­isme ou Bar­barie adopted this spe­cific form of work­ers’ inquiry – inquiry as nar­ra­tive account – from Cor­re­spon­dence almost ready­made. The group set about trans­lat­ing The Amer­i­can Worker, which appeared seri­ally in the first eight issues of its homony­mously titled jour­nal. These mil­i­tants hailed the pam­phlet as a new, rev­o­lu­tion­ary kind of writ­ing; Philippe Guil­laume intro­duced it with the dec­la­ra­tion that “the name Romano will stay in the his­tory of pro­le­tar­ian lit­er­a­ture, and that it will even sig­nify a turn­ing point in this his­tory.”37

Work­ers’ inquiry, in this early French con­text, there­fore took on roughly the same form that it did with the Amer­i­cans, with The Amer­i­can Worker again set­ting the par­a­digm. It not only formed the empir­i­cal ground for Claude Lefort’s “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence,” Social­isme ou Barbarie’s most seri­ous the­o­riza­tion of inquiry, but would also spawn a num­ber French inquiries mod­eled on Singer’s account. The first came in 1952, when Georges Vivier, a young worker at Chaus­son, began a series on pro­le­tar­ian life titled “La vie en usine” (Life in the Fac­tory). The most famous of these nar­ra­tives, how­ever, were the diaries of Daniel Mothé, the nom de guerre of Jacques Gau­trat, a machin­ist at Renault-Billancourt.38 His writ­ings, which first appeared in the pages of Social­isme ou Bar­barie, attracted so much atten­tion that an edited ver­sion was soon pub­lished by Les Éditions de Minuit in 1959 under the title Jour­nal d’un ouvrier 1956-1958 (Jour­nal of a Worker). It was received well enough to prompt the pub­li­ca­tion of a sec­ond diary, called Mil­i­tant chez Renault (Mil­i­tant at Renault), by Les Éditions du Seuil in 1965.

There would be a sec­ond moment in this transna­tional cir­cu­la­tion. By the time Cor­re­spon­dence split from the offi­cial Trot­sky­ist move­ment to become its own dis­tinct entity, the group decided to fur­ther rev­o­lu­tion­ize the form of work­ers’ inquiry: worker nar­ra­tives became a work­ers’ paper. The work­ers’ paper was to be a more dynamic form of inquiry, where dif­fer­ent sec­tors of the work­ing class could not only share their expe­ri­ences with sim­i­lar kinds of work­ers, but could in fact exchange those expe­ri­ences with each other through let­ters to the editors.

Social­isme ou Bar­barie cer­tainly had some reser­va­tions about the the­o­ret­i­cal assump­tions under­pin­ning the Cor­re­spon­dence project, but the group was suf­fi­ciently inspired by the model of the work­ers’ paper to spon­sor one of its own in France. Just as The Amer­i­can Worker had cre­ated a new genre of writ­ing, so too, they believed, did Cor­re­spon­dence stand for an entirely new kind of pub­li­ca­tion. “It rep­re­sents a pro­foundly orig­i­nal effort to cre­ate a jour­nal for the most part writ­ten by work­ers to speak with work­ers from the work­ers’ view­point,” they wrote in 1954. “It must sim­ply be acknowl­edged that Cor­re­spon­dence rep­re­sents a new type of jour­nal and that it opens a new period in rev­o­lu­tion­ary worker jour­nal­ism.”39 So just as Social­isme ou Bar­barie was inspired by The Amer­i­can Worker to spon­sor its own worker nar­ra­tives, so too was it prompted to sup­port the for­ma­tion of a work­ers paper along the same lines as Cor­re­spon­dence.

But although both groups used the work­ers’ nar­ra­tive and the work­ers’ paper as a means of access­ing the pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence, there was still at least one sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence. For Cor­re­spon­dence, social­ism already existed embry­on­i­cally in pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ences, which sim­ply had to be expressed and shared with other work­ers. It was enough to pro­vide a forum in which to cir­cu­late these expe­ri­ences; the “invad­ing social­ist soci­ety” would emerge on its own.

Social­isme ou Bar­barie remained skep­ti­cal. Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis would com­ment many years later, if “you talk about the invad­ing social­ist soci­ety,” then you “keep the apoc­a­lyp­tic, mes­sianic streak; the idea that there is a def­i­nite end to the road, and unless every­thing blows up we are going there and we are bound to end there, which is not true.”40 For Social­isme ou Bar­barie, the devel­op­ment of social­ism was not an irre­sistible force, but the very ques­tion to be answered. While there were cer­tain ele­ments, rudi­men­tary, inchoate, frag­mented, that could be found in pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ences, they could not be acti­vated sim­ply through writ­ing, or even the shar­ing of that writ­ing with other work­ers. Some in Social­isme ou Bar­barie even believed that these ele­ments could not be prop­erly artic­u­lated into a coher­ent social­ist project until they had been reworked through theory.

So the buried ele­ments recov­ered by inquiry had to be politi­cized before social­ism could see the light of day. These dif­fer­ences imme­di­ately put into ques­tion the poten­tial func­tion of mil­i­tant intel­lec­tu­als. For Cor­re­spon­dence, the role of intel­lec­tu­als was ambigu­ous. Their goal was to pro­vide the space for worker expe­ri­ences to be shared, even if this resulted in a poten­tial ven­tril­o­quism, as in the case of Con­stance Webb and Si Owens. As a 1955 edi­to­r­ial called “Must Serve Work­ers” put it, “The pri­mary task of any indi­vid­ual who comes to a work­ing class move­ment from another class is to put behind him his past and com­pletely iden­tify and adapt him­self to the work­ing class… The func­tion of the intel­lec­tual is to aid the move­ment, to place his intel­lec­tual accom­plish­ment at the dis­posal of the work­ers.”41

Indeed, the very struc­ture of the orga­ni­za­tion was deter­mined by this belief. Grace Lee Boggs later recalled in her auto­bi­og­ra­phy that the group tried to ground itself on Lenin’s notion that the best way to com­bat the bureau­cracy of the “first layer” of intel­lec­tu­als was to develop the “third layer” of the work­ers.42 Cor­re­spon­dence divided itself into three lay­ers: “real work­ers” in the first, “intel­lec­tu­als” who were now employed in jobs tra­di­tion­ally done by “work­ers” in the sec­ond, and the “real intel­lec­tu­als” in the third. As an evi­dently dis­grun­tled for­mer mem­ber recalled:

The real pro­le­tar­i­ans were put in the first layer, peo­ple of mixed sta­tus, like house­wives, in the sec­ond, and the intel­lec­tu­als were put in the third. Our meet­ings con­sisted of the now highly pres­tige­ful first layer spout­ing off, usu­ally in a ran­dom, inar­tic­u­late way, about what they thought about every­thing under the sun. The rest of us, espe­cially we intel­lec­tu­als in the third layer, were told to lis­ten.43

In con­trast to this, Social­isme ou Bar­barie claimed that worker expe­ri­ences had to be inter­preted and devel­oped, and this opened up space for a dif­fer­ent role for intel­lec­tu­als. The larger space that Social­isme ou Bar­barie accorded to the­o­ret­i­cal pro­duc­tion forced it to more directly, and per­haps more con­tentiously, inter­ro­gate the rela­tion­ship between work­ers and intel­lec­tu­als, espe­cially as it related to the prac­tice of work­ers’ inquiry.

But to under­stand the prob­lems raised by the work­ers’ paper, we have to go back to 1952 and an unsigned arti­cle by Claude Lefort titled “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence.”44 Hid­den within their daily expe­ri­ences, Lefort claimed, lay basic, per­haps even uni­ver­sal, pro­le­tar­ian atti­tudes: “Prior to any explicit reflec­tion, to any inter­pre­ta­tion of their lot or their role, work­ers have spon­ta­neous com­port­ments with respect to indus­trial work, exploita­tion, the orga­ni­za­tion of pro­duc­tion and social life both inside and out­side the fac­tory.”45 To access these atti­tudes, which for Lefort formed the very ground of the social­ist project, mil­i­tants had to col­lect accounts of pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ences. Indeed, learn­ing about the expe­ri­ences of the work­ing class, and inquir­ing into its daily life, had to be a fun­da­men­tal aspect of any rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tions. “Social­isme ou Bar­barie would like to solicit tes­ti­monies from work­ers,” he announced, “and pub­lish them at the same time as it accords an impor­tant place to all forms of analy­sis con­cern­ing pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence.”46

Since those atti­tudes, how­ever, remain latent, and because they are nec­es­sar­ily par­tial, tes­ti­monies must not only be col­lected, but actu­ally inter­preted. And therein lay the real prob­lem: who had the right to inter­pret these accounts? Lefort con­cluded his pro­gram­matic essay with exactly this ques­tion, which he answered with another:

Who will reveal from beneath the explicit con­tent of a doc­u­ment the inten­tions and atti­tudes that inspired it, and jux­ta­pose the tes­ti­monies? The com­rades of Social­isme ou Bar­barie? But would this not run counter to their inten­tions, given that they pro­pose a kind of research that would enable work­ers to reflect upon their expe­ri­ence?47

For the moment, these ques­tions were not so press­ing, since Social­isme ou Bar­barie remained on the mar­gins, and inquiry on the scale imag­ined by Lefort a mere pro­posal. But they became a prac­ti­cal con­cern in May 1954, when a work­ers’ paper actu­ally emerged in France. It all began at Renault-Billancourt, an auto­mo­bile plant in the sub­urbs of Paris. A mon­ster of a fac­tory, employ­ing some 30,000 work­ers, it was also a leg­endary site of pro­le­tar­ian mil­i­tancy, and widely con­sid­ered a Com­mu­nist strong­hold. But by the 1950s, the Party slowly began to lose its grip, increas­ingly com­ing under fire from more rad­i­cal ele­ments, like the Trot­sky­ists. It was in this con­text that, in April 1954, a break­through arrived when a few work­ers from one of the fac­tory shops cir­cu­lated a leaflet on wage lev­els. It was warmly received by other work­ers, and, encour­aged by this enthu­si­as­tic recep­tion, a few work­ers decided to launch an inde­pen­dent, clan­des­tine, monthly paper called Tri­bune Ouvrière.48

“What we want,” announced the first issue of the work­ers paper, posi­tion­ing itself against both the Renault man­age­ment and the PCF lead­er­ship, “is to end the tute­lage that the so-called work­ers’ orga­ni­za­tions have exer­cised over us for many years. We want all prob­lems con­cern­ing the work­ing class to be debated by the work­ers them­selves… What we sug­gest is to make of this paper a tri­bune in which we ask you to par­tic­i­pate. We would like this paper to reflect the lives and opin­ions of work­ers. It’s up to you to make this hap­pen.”49

Social­isme ou Bar­barie quickly sup­ported the paper, offer­ing it finan­cial back­ing, help­ing to dis­trib­ute it, and even pub­lish­ing extracts of the paper in its own review. But the exact rela­tion­ship between the two pub­li­ca­tions – the one a clan­des­tine paper writ­ten, edited, and man­aged by fac­tory work­ers, the other a the­o­ret­i­cal jour­nal almost entirely pro­duced by intel­lec­tu­als – was ambigu­ous, and, at times highly divi­sive. Some saw the work­ers’ paper as an inde­pen­dent venue for the raw voice of the work­ing class, what­ever it might have to say, and there­fore only loosely allied with the the­o­ret­i­cal project car­ried out by Social­isme ou Bar­barie; oth­ers wanted to for­mally inte­grate it with Social­isme ou Bar­barie, hop­ing the work­ers’ paper could intro­duce the rig­or­ous ideas of the group to a broader pro­le­tar­ian audience.

In 1955, Tri­bune Ouvrière began run­ning into dif­fi­cul­ties. The col­lec­tive had not really grown, work­ers by and large seemed indif­fer­ent to the paper, and the edi­to­r­ial board remained tiny, with no more than per­haps 15 work­ers. Part of this gen­eral lack of inter­est stemmed from logis­ti­cal chal­lenges. The edi­to­r­ial team had min­i­mal fund­ing, and couldn’t afford to charge high prices, since none of the work­ers would buy an expen­sive paper. It was also very dif­fi­cult to dis­trib­ute. As a clan­des­tine paper, it could only be cir­cu­lated from hand to hand. And its meet­ings could not be orga­nized out in the open, mak­ing it very dif­fi­cult to estab­lish long-term rela­tions with inter­ested readers.

But there were also other, per­haps more fun­da­men­tal prob­lems at play. Daniel Mothé used the oppor­tu­nity to write a pro­gram­matic piece on the mean­ing of the work­ers’ paper, spend­ing a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the arti­cle dis­cussing the rela­tion­ship between work­ers and intel­lec­tu­als. It should be noted at the out­set that Mothé was not really a “neu­tral” observer. The only one to have a foot in both orga­ni­za­tions, Mothé was one of the prin­ci­pal ani­ma­tors behind the paper as well as mem­ber of Social­isme ou Bar­barie since 1952 – he there­fore had a vested inter­est in “solv­ing” the vexed rela­tion­ship between the two pub­li­ca­tions.50 It’s highly sig­nif­i­cant, more­over, that Mothé pub­lished his long piece about Tri­bune Ouvrière in Social­isme ou Bar­barie.

In con­trast to Cor­re­spon­dence, which he directly men­tioned in his piece, Mothé argued that a work­ers’ paper, though entirely writ­ten by work­ers them­selves, still had to par­tic­i­pate in some kind of dia­logue with mil­i­tant intel­lec­tu­als – in fact, this had to be its pri­mary func­tion. For Mothé there is a clear divi­sion of labor, deter­mined by the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion itself, which can­not be will­fully ignored. Rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics has to take account of this divi­sion, rather than wish it away. Mothé builds on this obser­va­tion to con­struct a dichotomy between two ideal types: the worker on the one hand, and the mil­i­tant intel­lec­tual on the other. They are pri­mar­ily dis­tin­guished, he says, by their train­ing, sug­gest­ing that “if the for­ma­tion of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tant is a for­ma­tion that is almost exclu­sively intel­lec­tual,” espe­cially dur­ing a period in which “rev­o­lu­tion­ary minori­ties” have been uprooted from the work­ing class, the “polit­i­cal for­ma­tion of work­ers is, on the con­trary, almost exclu­sively prac­ti­cal.” This prac­ti­cal for­ma­tion was both acquired in the expe­ri­ence of strug­gle and became the basis of new meth­ods of strug­gle. The key prob­lem is to find a way to link these two dis­tinct poles, to cre­ate a form that can fuse the “imme­di­ate expe­ri­ence of the work­ers and the the­o­ret­i­cal expe­ri­ence of rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants.”51

Mothé argued that each pole had to play a unique func­tion that was nev­er­the­less depen­dent on the other. The rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tant artic­u­lates rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory, imparts that the­ory to the work­ing class, and com­bats false ideas.52 The “essen­tial ele­ments” of that the­ory, how­ever, are them­selves drawn from the lived expe­ri­ences of the work­ing class. They form a rec­i­p­ro­cal rela­tion­ship: “In this sense, if the work­ing class needs the rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tion to the­o­rize its expe­ri­ence, the orga­ni­za­tion needs the work­ing class in order to draw on this expe­ri­ence. This process of osmo­sis has a deci­sive impor­tance.”53

The key­stone of this rela­tion, Mothé argued, is pre­cisely the work­ers’ news­pa­per. The real func­tion of the work­ers’ paper is to medi­ate between these two poles. It is the means through which work­ers can express their every­day expe­ri­ences, which can then be the­o­rized by rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants. Mil­i­tants can then read these accounts, sift through them for latent polit­i­cal ten­den­cies, and work their rudi­men­tary insights into rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory. At the same time, one assumes, the paper can serve as the vehi­cle through which these newly devel­oped the­o­ries will then be trans­mit­ted back to the work­ing class.

Mothé’s model, how­ever, posed as many ques­tions as it answered. To begin with, there was the impre­cise notion of expe­ri­ence, and the ques­tion­able assump­tion that, at base, all pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ences artic­u­lated a set of uni­ver­sal atti­tudes. The Johnson-Forest Ten­dency and Claude Lefort both shared this sup­po­si­tion. Indeed, in “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence,” Lefort went so far as to write:

Two work­ers in very dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions have in com­mon that both have endured one or another form of work and exploita­tion that is essen­tially the same and absorbs three-quarters of their per­sonal exis­tence. Their wages might be very dif­fer­ent, their liv­ing sit­u­a­tions and fam­ily lives may not be com­pa­ra­ble, but it remains the case that they are pro­foundly iden­ti­cal both in their roles as pro­duc­ers or machine oper­a­tors, and in their alienation.

Even if one lim­its the work­ing class to fac­tory work­ers, which Lefort seemed to do, such a claim reduces the het­ero­gene­ity of the work­ing class to a shared human essence: work­ers are every­where the same because they have all alien­ated their uni­ver­sal cre­ative pow­ers into the things they pro­duce. But such a con­cep­tion pre­vents us from grasp­ing the many forms that labor-power assumes, the plu­ral­ity of ways it is put to work, and the diverse processes through which it is exploited.

All this leads one to won­der who these “work­ers” Mothé keeps talk­ing about really are. If rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants must draw on pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ences, do these include those of house­wives and farm­work­ers? Must rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants draw on all these expe­ri­ences, or is the expe­ri­ence of only one sec­tor suf­fi­cient, and if so, which will speak for all the rest? Mothé’s unsta­ble ter­mi­nol­ogy exposes his pref­er­ence. The piece begins by draw­ing a dis­tinc­tion between “rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants” and “work­ers,” but Mothé soon speaks of “rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants” and “van­guard work­ers.” The slip sig­nals his pri­or­i­ti­za­tion of one kind of worker over the oth­ers. Indeed, for Mothé, as with most Social­isme ou Bar­barie, when they spoke of the work­ing class, they really meant the indus­trial work­ing class, par­tic­u­larly at the auto­mo­bile fac­to­ries; but even more specif­i­cally, their ideal fig­ure, their con­structed van­guard, was semi-skilled labor­ers. It is impor­tant to observe that while Social­isme ou Bar­barie sought to bypass the whole notion of the van­guard party by going directly to the work­ing class, even its most “anar­chis­tic” ele­ments, like Lefort, remained encased in the gen­eral prob­lem­atic of van­guardism: the van­guard ele­ment was no longer out­side the class, but within it.

Mothé added a fur­ther qual­i­fi­ca­tion to this reduc­tion. The worker must not only be the most polit­i­cally con­scious of his class, but must also be capa­ble of express­ing his expe­ri­ences in such a way that they could be the­o­rized. This required not only a high degree of gen­eral lit­er­acy, as well as a fair share of con­fi­dence, but also some flu­ency in a more chal­leng­ing polit­i­cal lex­i­con. “In this sense,” Mothé clar­i­fied, “those work­ers most suit­able for writ­ing will be those who are at the same time the most con­scious, the most edu­cated but also those who will be the most rid of bour­geois or Stal­in­ist ide­o­log­i­cal influ­ence.”54 So Mothé wanted a worker who could not only reflect on his sit­u­a­tion and tran­scribe it into a nar­ra­tive that mim­ic­ked the nat­ural oral cul­ture of the aver­age worker, but who would also be free of all non-revolutionary ide­ol­ogy. It’s no sur­prise then, that Mothé, and much of Social­isme ou Bar­barie, only found one worker who fit the bill: Daniel Mothé him­self.55

The synec­dochic sub­sti­tu­tion of a sin­gle polit­i­cally con­scious male fac­tory worker for the work­ing class as a whole marks a sig­nif­i­cant step back from the posi­tions devel­oped by the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency, and later Cor­re­spon­dence, which had iden­ti­fied at least four dis­tinct seg­ments of the work­ing class: indus­trial work­ers, blacks, women, and youth.

Per­haps the shaki­est part of Mothé’s model, how­ever, had to do not so much with the first step in this process – from work­ers to intel­lec­tu­als – but the sec­ond, from intel­lec­tu­als to work­ers. Mothé spent a great deal of time dis­cussing the first process, but very lit­tle on the sec­ond. This was largely because this sec­ond process proved to be con­tentious among both the rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants of Social­isme ou Bar­barie as well as the fac­tory work­ers who formed the edi­to­r­ial core of Tri­bune Ouvrière.56

Some were strongly sup­port­ive of “return­ing” social­ist ideas to the work­ing class. Cas­to­ri­adis was the first to argue, as early as June 1956, that the group had to cre­ate a sep­a­rate “work­ers’ paper” aimed explic­itly at the work­ing class, not just in Paris, but all of France. It was imper­a­tive, he thought, to intro­duce more work­ers to Social­isme ou Barbarie’s the­o­ret­i­cal work, and to sharpen the the­ory itself, since the need to engage with a broader audi­ence, and there­fore write more acces­si­bly, would push the mil­i­tants to work in a more “con­crete” way, avoid­ing abstrac­tions and pay­ing greater atten­tion to devel­op­ments in the class struggle.

This pro­posal was rejected. Some, like Mothé, accepted Cas­to­ri­adis’ the­o­ret­i­cal posi­tion whole­heart­edly, and agreed with the neces­sity of such paper, but felt it was imprac­ti­cal due to the lack of resources, and the fact that the paper prob­a­bly would not find a ready audi­ence, given that it did not already enjoy strong links with the wider work­ing class in France. More­over, Mothé had seen first­hand, through his work with Tri­bune Ouvrière, just how dif­fi­cult it was to oper­ate a “work­ers’ jour­nal” in even one fac­tory, let alone all of France, as Cas­to­ri­adis hoped.

Oth­ers, like Henri Simon and Claude Lefort, opposed the paper on the­o­ret­i­cal grounds, high­light­ing once again a major divi­sion over the vexed “orga­ni­za­tion ques­tion.” Simon asked to what extent the paper would actu­ally be a work­ers’ paper if it were forcibly repur­posed to trans­mit rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory to work­ers.57 How would this be any dif­fer­ent from the other “worker” news­pa­pers, such as those spon­sored by the PCF, which they so harshly criticized?

In a sim­i­lar vein Lefort, who had always opposed the impo­si­tion of any kind of “direc­tion” onto the autonomous move­ments of the work­ing class, decried Castoriadis’s pro­posed paper as “an oper­a­tion from above.” As he put it, “Chaulieu has decided to have this paper at any cost, even though there is no working-class pub­lic in which to dif­fuse it, and even fewer work­ers to actively take part in it.”58 To be sure, Lefort was never opposed to the notion of a work­ers’ paper, not even to orga­ni­za­tion or the­ory as such. But his con­vic­tion that every­thing had to flow organ­i­cally from the work­ing class itself trans­lated into a deep sus­pi­cion of pro­grams: what­ever the inten­tions behind the draft­ing of such a doc­u­ment, and even if it were elab­o­rated in ref­er­ence to the class, a pro­gram would always end up ossi­fy­ing into an exte­rior form, ulti­mately strait­jack­et­ing working-class spon­tane­ity. Such a stance, which implied an extremely cir­cum­scribed role for mil­i­tants, was anti­thet­i­cal to Cas­to­ri­adis’ posi­tion, already reveal­ing an irrec­on­cil­able dif­fer­ence between the two prin­ci­pal the­o­rists behind the jour­nal. And it was pre­cisely work­ers’ inquiry, in the form of the paper, that revealed it most strik­ingly. Though both ral­lied around work­ers’ inquiry, each had a very dif­fer­ent objec­tive in mind. For Lefort, the object of inquiry was uni­ver­sal pro­le­tar­ian atti­tudes; for Cas­to­ri­adis, it was the rudi­men­tary con­tent of the social­ist program.

Although the pro­posal was defeated, the mat­ter exploded into full view again in 1958. De Gaulle’s coup cre­ated an entirely new sit­u­a­tion. The estab­lished Left seemed par­a­lyzed, a wave of new recruits flooded into Social­isme ou Bar­barie, and many, led by Cas­to­ri­adis, believed the time had finally come to trans­form the group into a rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tion, com­plete with a line, and a pop­u­lar paper like the one he had pro­posed back in 1956.59 A split took shape along the old fault lines, and in Sep­tem­ber, the minor­ity, led by Lefort and Simon, left to form Infor­ma­tion et Liaisons Ouvrières (Worker Infor­ma­tion and Con­nec­tions, ILO).60

One of the very first actions of this rein­vented Social­isme ou Bar­barie was to cre­ate a new paper, Pou­voir Ouvrier, in Decem­ber of that year. The form of the paper reflected Mothé and Castoriadis’s goals, ini­tially divided into two sec­tions: a polit­i­cal one, which pub­lished sim­pli­fied ver­sions of the the­o­ries devel­oped in its par­ent orga­ni­za­tion, and another, titled “La parole aux tra­vailleurs” (loosely, The Work­ers’ Turn to Speak), which pub­lished worker tes­ti­monies in the tra­di­tion of Paul Romano.

Argu­ing for the strate­gic neces­sity of the paper, Cas­to­ri­adis elab­o­rated his con­cep­tion of the rela­tion­ship of the intel­lec­tual and the worker in “Pro­le­tariat and Orga­ni­za­tion, Part 1,” writ­ten in the sum­mer of 1958 as the split with Lefort’s fac­tion was tak­ing place. While Mothé’s model of the paper had been some­thing like a trans­mis­sion belt, mov­ing for­ward then back­wards between work­ers and intel­lec­tu­als, as if at the flip of a switch, in this text Cas­to­ri­adis pro­vides a more dynamic image, more like a cir­cuit. Mil­i­tants do not sim­ply dis­sem­i­nate their the­o­ries among work­ers in order to con­vert them to social­ism, they sub­mit their the­o­ries for ver­i­fi­ca­tion. Rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory will “have no value, no con­sis­tency with what it else­where pro­claims to be its essen­tial prin­ci­ples,” Cas­to­ri­adis argued, “unless it is con­stantly being replen­ished, in prac­tice, by the expe­ri­ence of the work­ers as it takes shape in their day-to-day lives;” it was this process which would allow the work­ers to “edu­cate the edu­ca­tor.”61 This meant that Social­isme ou Bar­barie, which had hith­erto been an exceed­ingly “intel­lec­tual” review, had to rethink its prac­tice. “The task the orga­ni­za­tion is up against in this sphere,” he con­tin­ued, “is to merge intel­lec­tu­als with work­ers as work­ers as it is elab­o­rat­ing its views. This means that the ques­tions asked, and the meth­ods for dis­cussing and work­ing out these prob­lems, must be changed so that it will be pos­si­ble for the worker to take part.” Rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory had to be more acces­si­ble, the orga­ni­za­tion had to become more dis­ci­plined, and its com­po­si­tion had to change:

Only an orga­ni­za­tion formed as a rev­o­lu­tion­ary work­ers’ orga­ni­za­tion, in which work­ers numer­i­cally pre­dom­i­nate and dom­i­nate it on fun­da­men­tal ques­tions, and which cre­ates broad avenues of exchange with the pro­le­tariat, thus allow­ing it to draw upon the widest pos­si­ble expe­ri­ence of con­tem­po­rary soci­ety – only an orga­ni­za­tion of this kind can pro­duce a the­ory that will be any­thing other than the iso­lated work of specialists.

Like Mothé, he argued that mil­i­tants had to “extract the social­ist con­tent in what is con­stantly being cre­ated by the pro­le­tariat (whether it is a mat­ter of a strike or of a rev­o­lu­tion), for­mu­late it coher­ently, prop­a­gate it, and show its uni­ver­sal import.”62 The­ory must flow from the “his­toric as well as day-to-day expe­ri­ence and action of the pro­le­tariat,” and even “eco­nomic the­ory has to be recon­structed around what is con­tained in embryo in the ten­dency of work­ers toward equal­ity in pay; the entire the­ory of pro­duc­tion around the infor­mal orga­ni­za­tion of work­ers in the fac­tory; all of polit­i­cal the­ory around the prin­ci­ples embod­ied in the sovi­ets and the coun­cils.” But then it would be up to mil­i­tants to extract “what is uni­ver­sally valid in the expe­ri­ence of the pro­le­tariat,” work this up into a gen­eral “social­ist out­look,” then prop­a­gate this out­look among the work­ers whose expe­ri­ences served as its very con­di­tion of pos­si­bil­ity (214).

Cas­to­ri­adis had attempted pre­cisely this in the third part of his “On the Con­tent of Social­ism,” also in 1958. After crit­i­ciz­ing the bureau­cratic Bol­she­vik expe­ri­ence and then imag­in­ing a coun­cilist man­age­ment of soci­ety in parts one and two, he turned in the last part to the analy­sis of the labor process at the level of the enter­prise. The con­tent of social­ism is the “priv­i­leged cen­ter, the focal point” with­out which there is only “mere empir­i­cal soci­ol­ogy.” The con­tent of social­ism could only be demon­strated in the “proletariat’s strug­gle against alien­ation” (156).

The main con­tra­dic­tion of cap­i­tal­ism, Cas­to­ri­adis argued, lay in the def­i­n­i­tion of the exchange of labor-power, under­stood as the ten­sion between the “human time” of the laborer and the ratio­nal­iza­tion imposed by man­age­ment. There can only be a tem­po­rary bal­ance of forces between the two, the worker resign­ing to a com­pro­mise estab­lish­ing a cer­tain pace of work, which must be dis­solved and rein­vented when the man­u­fac­tur­ing process is trans­formed by new machin­ery. Taylorism’s func­tion was to reduce the het­ero­gene­ity of human time to the “‘one best way’ to accom­plish each oper­a­tion,” stan­dard­iz­ing the pro­ce­dures of work and deter­min­ing an aver­age out­put against which wages could be deter­mined – management’s attempt to the elim­i­nate the pos­si­bil­ity of wage con­flicts (159-60).

But Taylorism’s “one best way” could not pos­si­bly account for the real­ity of the work process, under­taken by indi­vid­u­als with mul­ti­plic­i­ties of “best ways” – with their own ges­tures and move­ments, their their own forms of adap­ta­tion to their tools, their own rhythms of exe­cu­tion. The col­lec­tiv­ity of indi­vid­u­als on the shop floor would have to under­take its own form of “spon­ta­neous asso­ci­a­tion” against the ratio­nal­iza­tion of man­age­ment, even to ful­fill management’s goals (163).

Here the con­cept of the “ele­men­tary group,” the “liv­ing nuclei of pro­duc­tive activ­ity,” drawn from The Amer­i­can Worker and the jour­nals of Mothé as much as from indus­trial soci­ol­ogy, became deci­sive (170).63 Each enter­prise, Cas­to­ri­adis wrote, had a ” dou­ble struc­ture,” its “for­mal orga­ni­za­tion” rep­re­sented in charts and dia­grams, and the infor­mal orga­ni­za­tion, “whose activ­i­ties are car­ried out and sup­ported by indi­vid­u­als and groups at all lev­els of the hier­ar­chi­cal pyra­mid accord­ing to the require­ments of their work, the imper­a­tives of pro­duc­tive effi­ciency, and the neces­si­ties of their strug­gle against exploita­tion” (170). The dis­tinc­tion between the two was not merely a ques­tion of “the­ory ver­sus prac­tice,” of an illu­sory boss’s ide­ol­ogy against the messy real­ity of the shop floor, as some lib­eral soci­ol­o­gists would have it. It rep­re­sented the real strug­gle by which man­age­ment attempted to encom­pass the entire pro­duc­tion process.

Against the “sep­a­rate man­age­ment [direc­tion]” of the bureau­cracy, the ele­men­tary group con­sti­tuted “the man­age­ment [ges­tion] of their own activ­ity” (169-70, 171). The oppo­si­tion between the two, Cas­to­ri­adis argued, was the real char­ac­ter of class strug­gle, the for­mal orga­ni­za­tion coin­cid­ing with the “man­age­r­ial stra­tum” and the infor­mal orga­ni­za­tion rep­re­sent­ing “a dif­fer­ent mode of oper­a­tion of the enter­prise, cen­tered around the real sit­u­a­tion of the exe­cu­tants.” This strug­gle between “direc­tors and exe­cu­tants” char­ac­ter­ized the cap­i­tal­ist work­place, begin­ning at the level of the ele­men­tary group and extend­ing across the whole enter­prise. Since the “posi­tion of each ele­men­tary group is essen­tially iden­ti­cal to that of the oth­ers,” the coop­er­a­tion between the groups leads them “to merge in a class, the class of exe­cu­tants, defined by a com­mu­nity of sit­u­a­tion, func­tion, inter­ests, atti­tude, men­tal­ity” (171).

If indus­trial soci­ol­ogy from management’s per­spec­tive was unable to rec­og­nize this class divi­sion in the work­place, and there­fore got lost in the­o­ret­i­cal abstrac­tion, the same went for Marx­ists whose con­cept of class did not begin with “the basic artic­u­la­tions within the enter­prise and among the human groups within the enter­prise.” Their ide­ol­ogy blocked them from “see­ing the proletariat’s vital process of class for­ma­tion, of self-creation as the out­come of a per­ma­nent strug­gle that begins within pro­duc­tion” (172).

This ide­ol­ogy had direct polit­i­cal con­se­quences. For Cas­to­ri­adis, even wage demands were nascent expres­sions of the strug­gle by which the infor­mal orga­ni­za­tion of the exe­cu­tants tended towards an attack on the cap­i­tal­ist man­age­ment of pro­duc­tion. If Marx­ist par­ties and unions attempted to restrict the con­tent of these strug­gles to the bureau­cratic man­age­ment of income redis­tri­b­u­tion, this could only rein­force the directors/executants divi­sion. “To the abstract con­cept of the pro­le­tariat cor­re­sponds the abstract con­cept of social­ism as nation­al­iza­tion and plan­ning,” Cas­to­ri­adis wrote, “whose sole con­crete con­tent ulti­mately is revealed to be the total­i­tar­ian dic­ta­tor­ship of the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of this abstrac­tion – of the bureau­cratic party.” For the work­ers’ strug­gle to truly real­ize itself, it would have to go fur­ther towards the work­ers’ self-management of pro­duc­tion (172).

With­out this thor­ough­go­ing trans­for­ma­tion of soci­ety, cap­i­tal­ism would con­tinue on its cur­rent course, with the “tremen­dous waste” gen­er­ated by its irra­tional pro­duc­tion process. Each enter­prise unsteadily tried to bal­ance between the decom­po­si­tion of exe­cu­tants into atom­ized indi­vid­u­als, and their rein­te­gra­tion into new uni­fied wholes cor­re­spond­ing to a newly ratio­nal­ized pro­duc­tion process (172-3). But the man­age­r­ial plan is inevitably unable to estab­lish a hier­ar­chy of tasks that reflects the real require­ments of pro­duc­tion – while man­age­ment is unaware of the real­ity of the process on the shop floor, the exe­cu­tant is sep­a­rated from the plan and unin­ter­ested in the results, prone to tak­ing short­cuts (175). Only “the prac­tice, the inven­tion, the cre­ativ­ity of the mass of exe­cu­tants,” the col­lec­tiv­ity of the ele­men­tary group, can fill the gaps in management’s pro­duc­tion direc­tives (176).

But despite Castoriadis’s affir­ma­tion of the cre­ativ­ity of the exe­cu­tants in the pro­duc­tion of com­modi­ties, their role in the pro­duc­tion of the­ory was pre­cip­i­tously declin­ing. As Simon, Lefort, and oth­ers had feared, the work­ers’ nar­ra­tives increas­ingly became a mere orna­ment in Pou­voir Ouvrier. Con­firm­ing this wor­ri­some trend, in Novem­ber of 1959 the group voted to shift the empha­sis of the jour­nal even more towards the “polit­i­cal” sec­tion. By the spring of 1961 the sep­a­rate sec­tion titled “La parole aux tra­vailleurs” had van­ished com­pletely.64 The paper there­fore ended up only ful­fill­ing the sec­ond func­tion out­lined by Mothé – trans­mit­ting rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory to the work­ing class. But with­out the first func­tion – express­ing pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ences – Pou­voir Ouvrier sim­ply became another van­guardist pub­li­ca­tion, indis­tin­guish­able from the var­i­ous papers Mothé had orig­i­nally criticized.

To be fair, it seems that the dis­ap­pear­ance of “La parole aux tra­vailleurs” was in large part the result of a lack of worker nar­ra­tives. Indeed, this prob­lem cut across the splits in Social­isme ou Bar­barie. What­ever the dif­fer­ences between Lefort’s, Mothé’s, and Pou­voir Ouvrier’s con­cep­tions of inquiry and the rela­tion between work­ers and intel­lec­tu­als, all were depen­dent on a steady stream of worker accounts. But to their cha­grin, they found that work­ers’ sim­ply did not want to write.65

It’s sig­nif­i­cant here that all of these mod­els imag­ined work­ers’ inquiry in the same way: not the ques­tion­naire, as Marx sug­gested, but the writ­ten tes­ti­mony ini­ti­ated by Romano. Lefort had gone as far as to explic­itly crit­i­cize the “statistically-based” strat­egy of work­ers pos­ing “thou­sands of ques­tions” to each other, since these would result in mere numer­i­cal cor­re­la­tions and would be unable to bring out the “sys­tems of liv­ing and think­ing” of “con­crete indi­vid­u­als.” Even worse, a “ques­tion imposed from the out­side might be an irri­tant for the sub­ject being ques­tioned, shap­ing an arti­fi­cial response or, in any case, imprint­ing upon it a char­ac­ter that it would not oth­er­wise have had.”66 But it is hard not to won­der if the dearth of worker responses has to do with this spe­cific form of inquiry. Though worker nar­ra­tives might allow work­ers to express them­selves more organ­i­cally, they are nonethe­less much more dif­fi­cult to com­pose than respond­ing to a questionnaire.

Just as Pou­voir Ouvrier saw itself mov­ing away from its orig­i­nal goals, Infor­ma­tion et Liaisons Ouvrières also ran into some dif­fi­cul­ties. Unlike the major­ity of Social­isme ou Bar­barie, which asserted the neces­sity of a for­mal party, com­plete with a kind of cen­tral com­mit­tee, the ILO minor­ity had advo­cated a more decen­tral­ized struc­ture, based on autonomous worker cells, where every­thing could be openly dis­cussed. The core of the group would be these cells, based in var­i­ous firms, and the role of ILO would not be to dis­sem­i­nate ideas from above, as Pou­voir Ouvrier would soon do, but to cir­cu­late expe­ri­ences, infor­ma­tion, and ideas between these var­i­ous cells. It was to be some­thing of a net­work, pro­vid­ing links between dif­fer­ent work­ers, very much along the lines of Cor­re­spon­dence. Whereas Pou­voir Ouvrier wanted to prop­a­gate the social­ist project among work­ers, ILO, Lefort later recalled, aimed to “dis­trib­ute a bul­letin as unpro­gram­matic as pos­si­ble attempt­ing pri­mar­ily to give work­ers a voice and to aid in coor­di­nat­ing expe­ri­ences in indus­try – that is, those expe­ri­ences result­ing from attempts at autonomous strug­gle.”67

It should be noted that the minor­ity which split off to form ILO was less united by a com­mon per­spec­tive than by its gen­eral oppo­si­tion to the major­ity that pushed for a party. It’s there­fore unsur­pris­ing that this new group of about twenty would soon run into its own inter­nal dif­fer­ences. A fis­sure began to appear between the prin­ci­pal ani­ma­tors of the group: Lefort, who wished to com­bine the authen­tic­ity of the work­ers’ voice with some kind of the­ory, felt that Simon not only wanted to aban­don all signs of direc­tion, ori­en­ta­tion, and party line, but even inter­pre­ta­tion and the­ory as such. He would later reflect:

The essen­tial thing was that these peo­ple speak of their expe­ri­ence in every­day life. In a sense [Simon] was absolutely cor­rect. We all thought that there was an evil spell of The­ory detached from, and designed to mask, expe­ri­ence and every­day­ness. But it was still a mat­ter of expe­ri­ence as actual expe­ri­ence and every­day­ness, not banal­ity. Expe­ri­ence is not raw; it always implies an ele­ment of inter­pre­ta­tion and opens itself to dis­cus­sion. Speech in every­day life tac­itly or explic­itly refuses another speech and solic­its a response. For Simon, the speech of the exploited, who­ever he might be, what­ever he might say, was in essence good. He knew like all of us that the dom­i­nant bour­geois or demo­c­ra­tic dis­course weighs heav­ily on the speech of the exploited. This knowl­edge did not weaken his con­vic­tion. The speech of the exploited was suf­fi­cient unto itself. Essen­tially, he said that a per­son speaks about what he sees and feels; we have only to lis­ten to him, or bet­ter yet record his remarks in our bul­letin, which is our rai­son d’être.68

Lefort, who left the group in 1960 (prompt­ing them to rename them­selves Infor­ma­tions et Cor­re­spon­dance Ouvrières, ICO), argued that no mat­ter what, some kind of inter­pre­ta­tion will always slip into inquiry, even if only in the selec­tion of texts, the order in which they would be pub­lished, and so forth. To deny this was to deceive oneself.

In other words, the orig­i­nal project of work­ers’ inquiry broke down on both sides. Pou­voir Ouvrier became another van­guardist jour­nal, indis­tin­guish­able from a Trot­sky­ist paper, try­ing to edu­cate the work­ing class through sim­pli­fied ren­di­tions of eso­teric the­o­ries devel­oped with­out ref­er­ence to the con­crete expe­ri­ences of the work­ing class. On the other, ICO tricked itself into ignor­ing the role of intel­lec­tu­als, only to find itself immo­bi­lized, chas­ing after some pure pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence untar­nished by the­o­ret­i­cal interpretation.

As for Cas­to­ri­adis, he broke with his own group in 1962. His reflec­tions on these debates had pro­duced an even more dras­tic effect: Cas­to­ri­adis had come to the con­clu­sion that Marx­ism as a the­ory had been defin­i­tively dis­proved. “Mod­ern Cap­i­tal­ism and Rev­o­lu­tion,” first writ­ten between 1959 and 1961, had been pub­lished before he left with the dis­claimer that its “ideas are not nec­es­sar­ily shared by the entire Social­isme ou Bar­barie group” (226). Draw­ing on his day job as pro­fes­sional econ­o­mist for the OECD, Cas­to­ri­adis drew up a dev­as­tat­ing bal­ance sheet for Marx­ist the­ory. In the con­text of the post­war boom, Marx­ists were con­tin­u­ing to claim that cap­i­tal­ism, through struc­tural unem­ploy­ment and the increase in the rate of exploita­tion, was impov­er­ish­ing and pau­per­iz­ing the worker. But in real­ity, the sys­tem had yielded full employ­ment and wages were grow­ing more rapidly than ever, lead­ing to a mas­sive expan­sion of con­sump­tion which both pro­vided a steady source of effec­tive demand and rep­re­sented a major rise in the stan­dard of liv­ing of the work­ing class. Marx­ist mil­i­tants had exposed them­selves as worse than use­less; unions had become “cogs in the sys­tem” which “nego­ti­ate the work­ers’ docil­ity in return for higher wages,” while pol­i­tics “takes place exclu­sively among spe­cial­ists,” the sup­posed work­ers’ par­ties dom­i­nated by bureau­crats (227).

As Lefort him­self had sug­gested, the pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence that Social­isme ou Barbarie’s inquires had attempted to reach would have to be coun­ter­posed to the rigid deter­mi­na­tion of eco­nomic laws. “For tra­di­tional Marx­ism,” Cas­to­ri­adis wrote, “the ‘objec­tive’ con­tra­dic­tions of cap­i­tal­ism were essen­tially eco­nomic ones, and the system’s rad­i­cal inabil­ity to sat­isfy the work­ing class’s eco­nomic demands made these the motive force of class strug­gle.” But under­ly­ing this premise was an “objec­tivist and mech­a­nis­tic” fal­lacy which rein­forc­ing the notion that spe­cial­ists and bureau­crats who could under­stand history’s “objec­tive laws” would be respon­si­ble for the analy­sis of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety and the “elim­i­na­tion of pri­vate prop­erty and the mar­ket.” Stuck within this fal­lacy, tra­di­tional Marx­ists could not even explain their own fix­a­tions; they failed to grasp that wages had increased because they were actu­ally deter­mined by class strug­gle, and the demands put forth by wage strug­gles could be met as long as they did not exceed pro­duc­tiv­ity increases (227).

Like the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency, Cas­to­ri­adis argued that the con­tra­dic­tion of cap­i­tal­ism had to be located in “pro­duc­tion and work,” and specif­i­cally in terms of the “alien­ation expe­ri­enced by every worker.” But unlike his stal­wart Marx­ist pre­de­ces­sors, Cas­to­ri­adis rec­og­nized that this the­ory was incom­pat­i­ble with the lan­guage of value, and rejected “eco­nomic” def­i­n­i­tions of class. The oppo­si­tion between direc­tors and exe­cu­tants thor­oughly replaced the one between own­ers of the means of pro­duc­tion to non-owners. This had major impli­ca­tions for the view of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment itself: the “ideal ten­dency” of “bureau­cratic cap­i­tal­ism” would be “the con­sti­tu­tion of a totally hier­ar­chized soci­ety in con­tin­u­ous expan­sion where people’s increas­ing alien­ation in their work would be com­pen­sated by a ‘ris­ing stan­dard of liv­ing’ and where all ini­tia­tive would be given over to orga­niz­ers” (229). This project, how­ever, was prone to the con­tra­dic­tion of bureau­cratic ratio­nal­ity, “capitalism’s need to reduce work­ers to the role of mere exe­cu­tants and the inabil­ity of this sys­tem to func­tion if it suc­ceeded in achiev­ing this required objec­tive.” The con­tra­dic­tion, then, was that “cap­i­tal­ism needs to real­ize simul­ta­ne­ously the par­tic­i­pa­tion and exclu­sion of the work­ers in the pro­duc­tion process” (228). This inher­ent ten­dency of cap­i­tal­ism could “never com­pletely pre­vail,” since “cap­i­tal­ism can­not exist with­out the pro­le­tariat,” and the proletariat’s con­tin­u­ous strug­gle to change the labor process and the stan­dard of liv­ing played a fun­da­men­tal role in cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment: “The extrac­tion of ‘use value from labor power’ is not a tech­ni­cal oper­a­tion; it is a process of bit­ter strug­gle in which half the time, so to speak, the cap­i­tal­ists turn out to be losers” (248).

The expe­ri­ence of this strug­gle, and the inad­e­quacy of reformism within it, had shorn the exe­cu­tants of any delu­sional faith in “objec­tive” con­tra­dic­tions as the guar­an­tee of bureau­cratic orga­ni­za­tions. Now the pro­le­tariat could finally rec­og­nize that the true rev­o­lu­tion­ary hori­zon was “work­ers’ man­age­ment and the over­com­ing of the cap­i­tal­ist val­ues of pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion” (230).

In other words, the demands of this move­ment would not be at the level of wages, which rep­re­sented the alien­ated sub­sti­tute for a moti­va­tion dri­ven by cre­ative work. The source of moti­va­tion required for social cohe­sion no longer lay in “sig­ni­fy­ing” activ­i­ties, but solely in the pur­suit of income. Even the clas­si­cal careerist goal of pro­mo­tion in the hier­ar­chy of the bureau­cracy ulti­mately led to higher income (276). But since per­sonal income can­not lead to accu­mu­la­tion – it can­not make a worker a cap­i­tal­ist – “income there­fore only has mean­ing through the con­sump­tion it allows.” Since con­sump­tion could not rest solely on exist­ing needs, which were “at the point of sat­u­ra­tion, due to con­stant rises in income,” cap­i­tal­ists had to gen­er­ate new needs through the intro­duc­tion of new com­modi­ties, and the alien­ated cul­ture of adver­tis­ing which embed­ded them in every­day life (277).

Yet the increase in out­put which was required for a con­stantly ris­ing level of con­sump­tion could only be ensured through the automa­tion of pro­duc­tion, capitalism’s attempt at “the rad­i­cal abo­li­tion of its labor rela­tion prob­lems by abol­ish­ing the worker” (283). And this is the con­text in which the “wage rela­tion becomes an intrin­si­cally con­tra­dic­tory rela­tion,” since a rapidly devel­op­ing tech­nol­ogy, as opposed to the sta­tic tech­nol­ogy of pre­vi­ous soci­eties, pre­vented man­age­ment from set­tling on any per­ma­nent means for the “sta­bi­liza­tion of class rela­tions in the work­place,” and pre­vented “tech­ni­cal knowl­edge from becom­ing crys­tal­lized for­ever in a spe­cific cat­e­gory of the labor­ing pop­u­la­tion” (260). The whole his­tory of class strug­gle within cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion could be under­stood in these terms. The intro­duc­tion of machin­ery in the early 19th cen­tury was met with the pri­mor­dial acts of indus­trial sab­o­tage. Despite the defeat of its Lud­dite begin­nings, the work­ers’ strug­gle con­tin­ued within the fac­tory, lead­ing to the intro­duc­tion of piece­work, wages based on out­put. Now that “norms” of pro­duc­tion were the pri­mary line of strug­gle, cap­i­tal­ism fought back with the Tay­lorist sci­en­tific man­age­ment of norms. The work­ers’ resis­tance to man­age­ment yielded the ide­o­log­i­cal responses of indus­trial psy­chol­ogy and soci­ol­ogy, with their goals of “inte­grat­ing” work­ers into alien­ated work­places. But it was impos­si­ble, even by these mea­sures, to sup­press the fun­da­men­tal antag­o­nism of work­ers towards the pro­duc­tion process – in fact, in the most advanced cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries, with the high­est wages and the most “mod­ern” method of pro­duc­tion and man­age­ment, the “daily con­flict at the point of pro­duc­tion reaches incred­i­ble pro­por­tions” (264).

Accord­ing to Cas­to­ri­adis, the tra­di­tional Marx­ist con­cep­tion was unable to com­pre­hend this his­tor­i­cal process. For Marx­ism, “cap­i­tal­ists them­selves do not act – they are ‘acted upon’ by eco­nomic motives that deter­mine them just as grav­i­ta­tion gov­erns the move­ment of bod­ies” (262). But his­tory proved that the rul­ing class adapted its strate­gies accord­ing to its sub­jec­tive expe­ri­ence of class strug­gle, learn­ing that wages can buy the work­ers’ docil­ity, that state inter­ven­tion can sta­bi­lize the econ­omy, and that full employ­ment can pre­vent the rev­o­lu­tion­ary upheaval which would result from a rep­e­ti­tion of 1929 (269-70).

So the new rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­tique of soci­ety had to shed the dis­trac­tion of the objec­tivist the­ory and directly denounce the irra­tional and inhu­man results of bureau­cratic man­age­ment and alien­ated work. And cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment had ren­dered the over­com­ing of alien­ation defin­i­tively pos­si­ble, since at the tech­ni­cal level “the entire plan­ning bureau­cracy already can be replaced by elec­tronic cal­cu­la­tors,” and on the social level the irra­tional­ity of the bureau­cratic orga­ni­za­tion of soci­ety had been com­pletely unveiled (299).

Just as Cas­to­ri­adis drew up a bal­ance sheet of “tra­di­tional Marx­ism,” we can now eval­u­ate this par­tic­u­lar moment of rup­ture. The new the­ory of class was expe­di­ent for an analy­sis of the planned econ­omy of the Soviet Union as “bureau­cratic cap­i­tal­ism,” for­mu­lated in dia­logue with the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency. Cas­to­ri­adis rad­i­cal­ized their claim that cap­i­tal­ism emerged from rela­tions on the shop floor, rather than own­er­ship of the means of pro­duc­tion.69 The ratio­nal ker­nel of this the­ory was clear: the process which began with the Bol­she­vik enthu­si­asm for Taylorism, the adop­tion by the Russ­ian bureau­cracy of forms of orga­ni­za­tion of the labor process pio­neered by cap­i­tal­ist man­age­ment and soci­ol­ogy, shat­tered the Sec­ond Inter­na­tional phi­los­o­phy of his­tory. The advance­ment of the pro­duc­tive forces, whether they were pri­vately or pub­licly owned, had become an ele­ment of the ratio­nal­ity which gov­erned ever more com­plex forms of social stratification.

How­ever, Castoriadis’s new the­ory was sub­ject to the same blindspots as his pre­de­ces­sors, unable to explain class rela­tions in their unity with exchange rela­tions. The ques­tion of tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment itself poses fun­da­men­tal ques­tions about his analy­sis. While Cas­to­ri­adis cor­rectly crit­i­cized the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the devel­op­ment of the pro­duc­tive forces with the polit­i­cal project of social­ism, he did not explain how this process was sit­u­ated within the social rela­tions of cap­i­tal­ism. Tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment was an expres­sion of the ratio­nal­ity of man­age­ment; while Cas­to­ri­adis bril­liantly out­lined the con­tra­dic­tions of this ratio­nal­ity at the level of the enter­prise, the under­ly­ing system-wide ques­tions of Marx’s analy­sis, to which each vol­ume of Cap­i­tal had been devoted, were now left unan­swered. If tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment is a waste­ful process, why does a profit-seeking enter­prise under­take it? How is it able to make large expen­di­tures in fixed cap­i­tal, in expen­sive machin­ery, and con­tinue to repro­duce its ongo­ing con­di­tions of pro­duc­tion? In Castoriadis’s analy­sis, tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment is prac­ti­cally the result of a lack of moti­va­tion, which can only be over­come through the expan­sion in con­sump­tion that is enabled by tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment and its aug­men­ta­tion of out­put. We now lack the the­o­ret­i­cal resources to under­stand why pro­duc­tion has become the end of human exis­tence, or what “max­i­mum pro­duc­tion” would mean – as though the capitalist’s goal were to own more things rather than to make more profits.

Just as fun­da­men­tal was the ques­tion of this system’s basic pre­con­di­tions. While Cas­to­ri­adis explained cap­i­tal­ism as the fullest expres­sion of alien­ation and reifi­ca­tion, it was by no means clear how these phe­nom­ena were spe­cific to cap­i­tal­ism, and what they had to do with the eco­nomic dynam­ics he was so quick to dis­miss. Under­ly­ing management’s attempt to direct labor-power towards the max­i­mum pos­si­ble out­put was the fact that cap­i­tal­ist man­age­ment was com­pelled to exploit labor-power to the most prof­itable extent – and that work­ers were equally com­pelled to sell their labor-power in exchange for a wage. What accounted for this compulsion?

If these ques­tions were some­how incom­pat­i­ble with the analy­sis of the cap­i­tal­ist enter­prise, this would not only inval­i­date Marx­ism – it would make the cap­i­tal­ist nature of the enter­prise inex­plic­a­ble. But by start­ing from inquiries into the trans­for­ma­tion of the labor process, and shift­ing to a his­tor­i­cal account of the logic of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment, Social­isme ou Bar­barie had served as an indis­pens­able foundation.

Sci­ence and Strat­egy: Operaismo

The influ­ence of Cas­to­ri­adis, Lefort, Mothé and oth­ers from Social­isme ou Bar­barie was quite appar­ent in the Italy of the early 1960s. Toni Negri, for instance, recalls how Social­isme ou Bar­barie, “the jour­nal that Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis and Claude Lefort pub­lished in Paris,” became “my daily bread in that period.”70

Direct links, in fact, had already been estab­lished. In 1954 Danilo Mon­taldi, who had ear­lier been expelled from the Ital­ian Com­mu­nist Party (PCI), trans­lated “The Amer­i­can Worker,” not from the orig­i­nal Eng­lish, but from the French trans­la­tions that appeared in Social­isme ou Bar­barie. He trav­eled to Paris that year, meet­ing the mil­i­tants of Social­isme ou Bar­barie and ini­ti­at­ing an exchange with none other than Daniel Mothé, whose diary he would later trans­late into Ital­ian. Mon­taldi would main­tain these con­nec­tions, return­ing to Paris in 1957, and again in 1960, to strengthen ties with Cas­to­ri­adis, Lefort, and Edgar Morin, among oth­ers.71

Mon­taldi not only played an indis­pens­able role in the trans­mis­sion of the ideas of Social­isme ou Bar­barie into the Ital­ian con­text, he put them into prac­tice, con­duct­ing his own brand of work­ers’ inquiry. These prac­ti­cally unprece­dented inves­ti­ga­tions, which relied on a plu­ral­ity of meth­ods, from nar­ra­tive to soci­o­log­i­cal inquiry to oral his­tory, resulted in a series of highly influ­en­tial pub­li­ca­tions: “Milan, Korea,” an inquiry into south­ern immi­grants liv­ing in Milan, Auto­bi­ografie della leg­gera, and finally Mil­i­tanti politici di base.

Mon­taldi pro­posed an entirely dif­fer­ent way of see­ing things. The objec­tive of inquiry was to uncover the every­day strug­gles of the work­ing class, inde­pen­dently of all the offi­cial insti­tu­tions that claimed to rep­re­sent it. Yet as Ser­gio Bologna recalls, Montaldi’s care­ful his­to­ries rejected myth­i­cal trib­utes to spon­tane­ity, opt­ing instead for rich descrip­tions of “microsys­tems of strug­gle,” the polit­i­cal cul­tures of resis­tance that made seem­ingly spon­ta­neous move­ments pos­si­ble.72 This new focus on buried net­works and obscured his­to­ries would have tremen­dous ramifications.

In addi­tion to his own inves­ti­ga­tions, Mon­taldi orga­nized a group in Cre­mona called Gruppo di Unità Pro­le­taria. Last­ing from 1957-1962, it brought together a num­ber of young mil­i­tants, all united by their desire to dis­cover the work­ing class as it really was, beyond the frigid world of party cards. One of these young mil­i­tants was Romano Alquati.

Alquati, trained as a soci­ol­o­gist, would be a piv­otal fig­ure in the for­ma­tion of the jour­nal Quaderni Rossi, the ini­tial encounter of het­ero­dox mil­i­tants from the Ital­ian Social­ist Party and the Ital­ian Com­mu­nist Party which would found operaismo, or “work­erism.” Quaderni Rossi began with a debate over soci­ol­ogy, whose use by the bosses had yielded new forms of labor man­age­ment and dis­ci­pline, but had also gen­er­ated invalu­able infor­ma­tion about the labor process. While a crit­i­cal Marx­ist appro­pri­a­tion of soci­ol­ogy was on the agenda, its rela­tion to Montaldi’s work­ers’ inquiry was not entirely clear. Some in Quaderni Rossi – the “soci­ol­o­gist” fac­tion sur­round­ing Vit­to­rio Rieser – believed that this new sci­ence, though asso­ci­ated with bour­geois aca­d­e­mics, could be used as a basis for the renewal of the insti­tu­tions of the work­ers’ move­ment. Oth­ers, includ­ing Alquati, felt soci­ol­ogy could only be, at best, an ini­tial step towards a specif­i­cally mil­i­tant col­lab­o­ra­tion between researchers and work­ers, a new form of knowl­edge which would be char­ac­ter­ized as “core­search.”73

Alquati’s inquiries would prove to be fun­da­men­tal in the devel­op­ment of workerism’s eco­nomic analy­sis. Steve Wright has bril­liantly traced the break which can be observed between Alquati’s “Report on the ‘New Forces,’” a study of FIAT pub­lished in the first issue of Quaderni Rossi in 1961, and the 1962 study of Olivetti. In the first text, along with the two oth­ers pub­lished that year on FIAT, Alquati oper­ates, inter­est­ingly enough, within the prob­lem­atic estab­lished in Social­isme ou Bar­barie.74 The “new forces” at FIAT were the younger gen­er­a­tion, brought in to work the recently installed machin­ery that had deskilled more expe­ri­enced pro­fes­sional work­ers. Man­age­ment imposed hier­ar­chies within the work­force – a divi­sion of labor sep­a­rat­ing tech­ni­cians and skilled work­ers from the major­ity, along with divi­sive pay scales. But this process of ratio­nal­iza­tion was sub­ject to the con­tra­dic­tory irra­tional­ity Cas­to­ri­adis had described; and it gave rise to forms of “invis­i­ble orga­ni­za­tion” result­ing from the fact that man­age­ment was con­strained to give exe­cu­tants respon­si­bil­ity while at the same time try­ing to repress their con­trol. Alquati also drew polit­i­cal con­clu­sions rem­i­nis­cent of his French pre­cur­sors: the work­ers were uncon­vinced by the reformism of the offi­cial work­ers’ move­ment, and instead expressed inter­est in work­ers’ man­age­ment, in an end to the alien­at­ing process of work.

Along­side Alquati’s text in the inau­gural issue of Quaderni Rossi, Ranziero Panzieri, the founder of the review, pub­lished a highly influ­en­tial arti­cle called “The Cap­i­tal­ist Use of Machin­ery: Marx Against the Objec­tivists.” Writ­ten after Alquati’s “Report,” it reflected on the themes raised by Alquati, refer­ring through­out to the work­ers “stud­ied in the present issue of Quaderni Rossi,” while push­ing towards a new frame­work. Panzieri, who had not only writ­ten the intro­duc­tion to the Ital­ian edi­tion of Mothé’s diary, but was also the Ital­ian trans­la­tor of the sec­ond vol­ume of Cap­i­tal, was not pre­pared to drop Marx’s lan­guage in favor of that of direc­tors and executants:

the worker, as owner and seller of his labour-power, enters into rela­tion with cap­i­tal only as an indi­vid­ual; coop­er­a­tion, the mutual rela­tion­ship between work­ers, only begins with the labour process, but by then they have ceased to belong to them­selves. On enter­ing the labour process they are incor­po­rated into cap­i­tal.75

For Panzieri, the means by which this incor­po­ra­tion took place was machin­ery, in the pas­sage from man­u­fac­ture to the devel­oped level of large-scale indus­try. Cit­ing Marx’s remark that in the cap­i­tal­ist fac­tory, “the automa­ton itself is the sub­ject, and the work­ers are merely con­scious organs,” Panzieri’s tar­get was the labor bureaucracy’s enthu­si­asm for tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment.76 Accord­ing to this ortho­dox posi­tion, tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment rep­re­sented a tran­shis­tor­i­cal force, deter­min­ing the pro­gres­sive move­ment through modes of pro­duc­tion. To drive down the Ital­ian road to social­ism, the Ital­ian worker would have to sub­mit to the automa­tons in the auto­mo­bile fac­to­ries.77

It is sig­nif­i­cant that while Panzieri made many of the same his­tor­i­cal obser­va­tions as Cas­to­ri­adis, he defended them as dis­cov­er­ies inter­nal to Marx’s the­ory. The same went for the ris­ing stan­dard of liv­ing. Accord­ing to Panzieri, “Marx fore­saw an increase not just of the nom­i­nal but also of the real wage”: “the more the growth of cap­i­tal is rapid, the more the mate­r­ial sit­u­a­tion of the working-class improves. And the more the wage is linked to the growth of cap­i­tal, the more direct becomes labour’s depen­dence upon cap­i­tal.“78 For this rea­son, though now in agree­ment with Cas­to­ri­adis, Panzieri con­sid­ered wage strug­gles a func­tion of the unions’ bureau­cratic incor­po­ra­tion of labor into cap­i­tal; only by directly attack­ing capital’s con­trol and replac­ing it with work­ers’ con­trol could tech­no­log­i­cal ratio­nal­ity be sub­jected to “the social­ist use of machines.” Indeed, for Panzieri, Quaderni Rossi’s inquiries showed that the work­ers were already com­ing to this view. How­ever, he still warned against draw­ing any directly polit­i­cal con­clu­sions: “The ‘new’ working-class demands which char­ac­ter­ize trade-union strug­gles (stud­ied in the present issue of Quaderni Rossi) do not directly fur­nish a rev­o­lu­tion­ary polit­i­cal con­tent, nor do they imply an auto­matic devel­op­ment in that direction.”

When Alquati’s own inves­ti­ga­tions turned from FIAT to Olivetti – from a fac­tory that made cars to one that made cal­cu­la­tors and type­writ­ers – he was able to draw on and build upon Panzieri’s analy­sis of tech­nol­ogy. In the title “Organic Com­po­si­tion of Cap­i­tal and Labor-Power at Olivetti,” Alquati defin­i­tively brought the dis­course of work­ers’ inquiry back into the lan­guage of Marx­ist eco­nomic analy­sis, and implic­itly sug­gested a new con­cept: class composition.

While the seeds of class com­po­si­tion can be already observed in the “Report on the ‘New Forces,’” inso­far as Alquati attempted to describe the mate­r­ial exis­tence of the work­ing class, its behav­iors and forms of inter­ac­tions and orga­ni­za­tion, the ear­lier inquiry had treated machin­ery purely as a means by which direc­tors reduced work­ers to exe­cu­tants. Deskilling was sim­ply a way to break the will of the exe­cu­tants, and new machin­ery an instru­ment in this process. Now, in the inquiry at Olivetti, the increas­ing organic com­po­si­tion of cap­i­tal was seen from the working-class view­point as the recom­po­si­tion of labor-power, the trans­for­ma­tion of the very forms of worker coop­er­a­tion. Tech­nol­ogy, in this sense, rep­re­sented the field in which the social rela­tions of class were embed­ded, but as part of a dynamic process in which the con­flict between the extrac­tion of sur­plus value and work­ers’ insub­or­di­na­tion shaped the process of pro­duc­tion. Direc­tors were not mere par­a­sites; while it was true that exe­cu­tants infor­mally orga­nized their con­crete labor, the func­tion of man­age­ment was to plan and coor­di­nate this labor within the val­oriza­tion process. Work­ers’ strug­gles would have to artic­u­late forms of polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion that responded to this tech­no­log­i­cal recom­po­si­tion, and in this con­text self-management would no longer be ade­quate – except as the work­ers’ self-management of the strug­gle against the cap­i­tal relation.

If these inquiries resulted in the begin­nings of a new sci­en­tific prob­lem­atic, and an enthu­si­as­tic embrace of new forces, then inquiry turned out to be more polit­i­cally divi­sive than the par­tic­i­pants had real­ized. After the riots of Piazza Statuto in 1962, when work­ers attacked the offices of the Unione Ital­iana del Lavoro (UIL) in Turin, Quaderni Rossi would be torn apart by inter­nal dis­agree­ments.79 While Tronti, Alquati, Negri, and oth­ers believed that this rep­re­sented a new phase of the class strug­gle, an oppor­tu­nity to break with the increas­ingly unten­able strat­egy of col­lab­o­ra­tion with the unions, Panzieri saw it as a polit­i­cal impasse. Uncon­vinced that autonomous work­ers’ strug­gles could advance a last­ing orga­ni­za­tional form – even if the form of the unions had been exhausted – Panzieri thought that a renewed empha­sis on inquiry and soci­o­log­i­cal research would be required before any move­ment could emerge.

This polit­i­cal dif­fer­ence was, sig­nif­i­cantly, also a the­o­ret­i­cal one. At an edi­to­r­ial meet­ing at the end of 1963, Panzieri remarked that an essay of Tronti’s was

for me a fas­ci­nat­ing resume of a whole series of errors that the work­ers’ Left can com­mit in this moment. It is fas­ci­nat­ing because it is very Hegelian, in the orig­i­nal sense, as a new way of re-living a phi­los­o­phy of his­tory. It is pre­cisely a phi­los­o­phy of his­tory of the work­ing class. One speaks, for exam­ple, of the party, but in that con­text the con­cept of the party can­not be deduced or forced in; one can only deduce the self-organisation of the class at the level of neo-capitalism.80

In Jan­u­ary of the fol­low­ing year, this essay would launch the new jour­nal Classe Operaia, formed by Tronti’s fac­tion. His con­tro­ver­sial essay would famously announce, in the lines which have now become the inescapable catch­phrase of work­erism: “We too have worked with a con­cept that puts cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment first, and work­ers sec­ond. This is a mis­take. And now we have to turn the prob­lem on its head, reverse the polar­ity, and start again from the begin­ning: and the begin­ning is the class strug­gle of the work­ing class.”81

In the fall of that year, the last of his life, Panzieri spoke at a Turin sem­i­nar called “Social­ist Uses of Work­ers’ Inquiry,” along­side the “soci­ol­o­gist” fac­tion that had remained with Quaderni Rossi. Here he argued for “the use of soci­o­log­i­cal tools for the polit­i­cal aims of the work­ing class,” and in doing so pre­sented a kind of coun­ter­point to “Lenin in Eng­land.” In his inter­ven­tion, pub­lished the fol­low­ing year in Quaderni Rossi, Panzieri defended the anti-historicist char­ac­ter of inquiry, claim­ing that Marx’s Cap­i­tal itself had the fea­tures of a soci­o­log­i­cal analysis:

In Marx’s Eco­nomic and Philo­soph­i­cal Man­u­scripts and other early writ­ings the point of com­par­i­son is alien­ated being (“the worker suf­fers in his very exis­tence, the cap­i­tal­ist in the profit on his dead mam­mon”) and the cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­omy is linked to a his­tor­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal con­cep­tion of human­ity and his­tory. How­ever, Marx’s Cap­i­tal aban­dons this meta­phys­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal out­look and the later cri­tique is lev­elled exclu­sively at a spe­cific sit­u­a­tion that is cap­i­tal­ism, with­out claim­ing to be a uni­ver­sal anti-critique of the one-sidedness of bour­geois polit­i­cal economy.

Work­ers’ inquiry as a sci­en­tific prac­tice had to be elab­o­rated on this basis – by advanc­ing its own one-sidedness in response. For Panzieri, Marx­ist soci­ol­ogy “refuses to iden­tify the work­ing class with the move­ment of cap­i­tal and claims that it is impos­si­ble to auto­mat­i­cally trace a study of the work­ing class back to the move­ment of cap­i­tal.”82

But what was the mean­ing of this one-sidedness? Panzieri had indi­cated his dis­taste for Tronti’s grandiose inver­sion, and this was indeed a per­ti­nent crit­i­cism, pre­sag­ing the increas­ing dis­tance of work­erist the­ory from the con­crete prac­tice of inquiry over the course of the 1960s and 1970s. How­ever, Panzieri was unable to pro­pose a new polit­i­cal approach; while he had tied the prac­tice of inquiry to a Marx­ist eco­nomic analy­sis, he was unable to bring this the­ory to bear on the real polit­i­cal activ­ity that was begin­ning to emerge, and which would char­ac­ter­ize over a decade of class strug­gle to fol­low. Recently Tronti has reflected on this split:

Panzieri accused me of “Hegelian­ism,” of “phi­los­o­phy of his­tory.” This read­ing, and the accu­sa­tion that under­lies it, will often return; after all, Hegelian­ism was a real fac­tor, it was effec­tively there, always had been; while this idea of a “phi­los­o­phy of his­tory” absolutely did not… Ours was not a the­ory that imposed itself from out­side on real data, but the oppo­site: that is, the attempt to recover those real data, giv­ing them mean­ing within a the­o­ret­i­cal hori­zon.83

Indeed, work­erism would, for its entire his­tory, be tor­tured by the ten­sion between “phi­los­o­phy of his­tory” and “real data”; this lives on in today’s “post-workerism.” But these are the risks taken by those whose eyes are on the “the­o­ret­i­cal hori­zon.” It is impor­tant to note that Alquati, who did not share Panzieri’s views on the incom­pat­i­bil­ity of research and insur­rec­tion, split from Quaderni Rossi and joined Classe Operaia. His con­cep­tion of inquiry was a mil­i­tant and polit­i­cal one.

For this rea­son Tronti’s the­o­ret­i­cal syn­the­sis, in his 1965 essay “Marx, Labor-Power, Work­ing Class,” has to be reex­plored. This essay makes up the bulk of Work­ers and Cap­i­tal (1966), with only a cou­ple con­clud­ing sec­tions trans­lated into Eng­lish. Unlike the rest of the book, which con­sists of arti­cles writ­ten for Quaderni Rossi and Classe Operaia, this hith­erto unpub­lished essay is a long and con­tin­u­ous argu­ment, devel­oped on the basis of Tronti’s Marx­ol­ogy and his­tor­i­cal analy­sis. While this leads us to a cer­tain digres­sion, we believe it is the indis­pens­able basis for redis­cov­er­ing the the­ory of class com­po­si­tion that Alquati’s prac­tice of inquiry sug­gested, while also devel­op­ing this the­ory in a way that takes Panzieri’s warn­ing seriously.

Though Tronti’s clas­si­cal work­erist inver­sion is widely known and cited, less is known about the process of the­o­ret­i­cal elab­o­ra­tion that led to it. Through­out Work­ers and Cap­i­tal the pri­macy of work­ers’ strug­gle is described as a strate­gic rever­sal which attempts to iden­tify and advance the polit­i­cal char­ac­ter of Marx’s the­o­ret­i­cal devel­op­ment, with the expe­ri­ence of 1848 and the polit­i­cal writ­ings pre­ced­ing the sci­en­tific eco­nomic analy­sis.84 In a sense, this rep­re­sented a new object of inquiry. No longer was the goal, as it was for the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency or Social­isme ou Bar­barie, to dis­cover uni­ver­sal pro­le­tar­ian atti­tudes, or even the con­tent of social­ism, but to access a specif­i­cally polit­i­cal logic which emerged from the working-class view­point – a con­se­quence of the dif­fi­cult rela­tion between strat­egy and sci­ence rep­re­sented by Marx’s the­o­ret­i­cal practice.

Despite what seems to be an affir­ma­tion of some pur­ported working-class iden­tity, Tronti did not seek to defend, in the man­ner of the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency and Social­isme ou Bar­barie, the dig­nity of labor. On the con­trary, the guid­ing prin­ci­ple of the “refusal of work” meant return­ing to Marx’s own cri­tique of the ide­ol­ogy of the work­ers’ move­ment: “When Marx refused the idea of labor as the source of wealth and took up a con­cept of labor as the mea­sure of value, social­ist ide­ol­ogy was beaten for good, and working-class sci­ence was born. It’s no acci­dent that this is still the choice” (222).85

Marx had tire­lessly repeated that “labor is pre­sup­posed by cap­i­tal and at the same time pre­sup­poses it in its turn” – in other words, the owner of cap­i­tal pre­sup­poses labor-power, while labor-power pre­sup­poses the con­di­tions of labor. On its own, Tronti wrote, “labor cre­ates noth­ing, nei­ther value nor cap­i­tal, and con­se­quently it can­not demand from any­one the resti­tu­tion of the full fruit of what ‘it has cre­ated’” (222). But since social­ist ide­ol­ogy had extended to new the­o­ries of labor and class, it would be nec­es­sary to “clear the field of every tech­no­log­i­cal illu­sion” which tried to “reduce the pro­duc­tive process to the labor process, to a rela­tion of the laborer to the instru­ment as such of his labor, as though it were an eter­nal rela­tion of man with an evil gift of nature.” Just as treach­er­ous was “the trap of the processes of reifi­ca­tion,” which started with the “ide­o­log­i­cal lament” of machinery’s mor­ti­fi­ca­tion of the worker and quickly moved to pro­pose “the mys­ti­cal cure for the class con­scious­ness of this worker, as if it were the search for the lost soul of mod­ern man” (203).

Instead, rec­og­niz­ing that the “work­ing class is the point of his­tor­i­cal depar­ture for the birth and growth of cap­i­tal­ism,” Marx’s path was to “start from cap­i­tal to arrive at log­i­cally under­stand­ing the work­ing class” (230). Con­se­quently, it was nec­es­sary to affirm that the cap­i­tal­ist view­point could attain the sta­tus of sci­ence. In fact, cap­i­tal­ist sci­ence would be supe­rior to social­ist ide­olo­gies, which were still trapped in the view that “only the work­ing class, in par­tic­u­lar in the per­sona of its rep­re­sen­ta­tive offi­cials, is the repos­i­tory of real sci­ence (of real his­tory etc.), and that this is the sci­ence of every­thing, the gen­eral social sci­ence also valid for cap­i­tal.” It would be bet­ter to rec­og­nize that “in the reor­ga­ni­za­tion of the pro­duc­tive process of a large fac­tory, there is at least as much sci­en­tific knowl­edge as in the Smithian dis­cov­ery of pro­duc­tive labor that is exchanged for cap­i­tal” (172). To want to know more about cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety from the working-class view­point “than the cap­i­tal­ists them­selves” was a “pious illu­sion,” and “every form of work­ers’ man­age­ment of cap­i­tal proves to be nec­es­sar­ily imper­fect with rela­tion to a directly cap­i­tal­ist man­age­ment.” The work­ers’ path was not a per­fected man­age­ment, but destruc­tion of cap­i­tal­ism by rev­o­lu­tion. “So from the view­point of the cap­i­tal­ists,” Tronti argued, “it is com­pletely cor­rect to study the work­ing class; only they are capa­ble of study­ing it cor­rectly. But the ide­o­log­i­cal smog of indus­trial soci­ol­ogy will not suc­ceed in can­celling the death sen­tence that it rep­re­sents for them” (230).

In this regard research from the working-class view­point would be dis­tinct from cap­i­tal­ist soci­ol­ogy, since its find­ings would be ori­ented towards the orga­ni­za­tion of this destruc­tion. This indi­cates the ques­tion of “polit­i­cal com­po­si­tion”; as Tronti wrote, “the the­o­ret­i­cal research we have con­ducted on the con­cepts of labor, labor-power, work­ing class, becomes noth­ing more than an exer­cise on the path to the prac­ti­cal dis­cov­ery of a con­quest of orga­ni­za­tion” (259). This spe­cific line of research, which emerges from work­ers’ inquiry and, in the his­tory of work­erism, some­times strays quite far from it, requires a sep­a­rate inves­ti­ga­tion. For the time being, we will dwell on the con­cepts of labor, labor-power, and work­ing class, inso­far as they com­ple­ment and sys­tem­atize the find­ings of work­ers’ inquiry and the cat­e­gory of class composition.

Before even ask­ing what it means to say that the work­ing class dri­ves cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment, we have to ask what it means to say class, and indeed this is the absolutely cen­tral ques­tion of Tronti’s the­o­ret­i­cal elab­o­ra­tion. For Tronti the the­ory of class can­not be restricted to the point of pro­duc­tion, and does not even nec­es­sar­ily begin there. Its expo­si­tion begins with Marx’s point in vol­ume 2 of Cap­i­tal: “The class rela­tion between cap­i­tal­ist and wage-labourer is thus already present, already pre­sup­posed, the moment that the two con­front each other in the act M-L (L-M from the side of the worker).”86 Indeed, Tronti will affirm that “for Marx it is beyond doubt that the class-relation already exists in-itself [an sich] in the act of cir­cu­la­tion. It is pre­cisely this which reveals, which brings out, the cap­i­tal­ist rela­tion dur­ing the production-process” (149).87

His analy­sis pur­sues the lines of Marx which follow:

Money can be spent in this form only because labour-power is found in a state of sep­a­ra­tion from its means of pro­duc­tion (includ­ing the means of sub­sis­tence as means of pro­duc­tion of labour-power itself); and because this sep­a­ra­tion is abol­ished only through the sale of labour-power to the owner of the means of pro­duc­tion, a sale which sig­ni­fies that the buyer is now in con­trol of the con­tin­u­ous flow of labour-power, a flow which by no means has to stop when the amount of labor nec­es­sary to repro­duce the price of labour-power has been per­formed. The cap­i­tal rela­tion arises only in the pro­duc­tion process because it exists implic­itly in the act of cir­cu­la­tion, in the basi­cally dif­fer­ent eco­nomic con­di­tions in which buyer and seller con­front one another, in their class rela­tion.88

What can it mean that a the­o­ret­i­cal tra­di­tion so known for its focus on the point of pro­duc­tion starts with a the­ory not only of value, but of class, that is cen­tered on exchange? Hel­mut Reichelt has com­mented on the choice faced for eco­nomic form-analysis between, on the one hand, labor as a “quasi-ontological cat­e­gory” which presents “sub­stan­tialised abstract human labour as the sub­stance of value”; and on the other hand, an account of the specif­i­cally cap­i­tal­ist social processes which con­sti­tute the “valid­ity [Gel­tung]” of human activ­ity as abstract labor, and the nat­ural form of prod­ucts as val­ues – in other words, the deter­mi­na­tion of what is counted as labor in exchange.89 For Reichelt this is the basis of Marx’s advanced the­ory of value, and we can also observe Tronti fol­low­ing this thread: “Con­crete labor real­izes itself in the infi­nite vari­ety of its use val­ues; abstract labor real­izes itself in the equal­ity of com­modi­ties as gen­eral equiv­a­lents” (124).

In an adven­tur­ous recon­quer­ing of Marx’s 1844 Man­u­scripts, against their human­ist appro­pri­a­tion, Tronti argued that Marx’s early writ­ings on alien­ation rep­re­sented an ini­tial and incom­plete the­ory of abstract labor, aris­ing from the sep­a­ra­tion char­ac­ter­is­tic of pri­vate prop­erty.90 But this account would only be truly devel­oped in Cap­i­tal. While for Cas­to­ri­adis Cap­i­tal amounted to lit­tle more than eco­nomic objec­tivism, it raised the fun­da­men­tal ques­tion of the com­men­su­ra­bil­ity assumed in exchange – which, as Reichelt points out, is cen­tral to the “dou­ble char­ac­ter” of “the wealth of bour­geois soci­ety”: “a mass of a mul­ti­tude of use-values that as homoge­nous abstract quan­ti­ties can at the same time be aggre­gated into a social prod­uct.“91 The value rela­tion is meant to explain the form of “equal valid­ity” which allows dif­fer­ent prod­ucts to be ren­dered equiv­a­lent in exchange.92

A the­ory of class rela­tions spe­cific to cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety, then, can­not neglect to explain how the abil­ity to work can pos­si­bly be part of a sys­tem of exchange: how labor-power can be exchanged for a wage, inserted into a sys­tem of cir­cu­la­tion in which com­modi­ties are ren­dered equiv­a­lent accord­ing to their val­ues. But this ques­tion can only be answered within the con­text of a his­tor­i­cal analy­sis which opens onto the def­i­n­i­tion of class. Abstract labor is con­sti­tuted in exchange, but the typ­i­cal exchange of cap­i­tal­ism is money/labor-power; so how does this con­sti­tu­tive class rela­tion arise, in which own­ers of money and own­ers of labor-power con­front each other on the mar­ket, and what is its rela­tion to the process of cap­i­tal­ist development?

For both Lefort and Cas­to­ri­adis, rely­ing on the Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo, capitalism’s pre­con­di­tion was the bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion. For Lefort, the bour­geoisie had to be under­stood as con­sti­tut­ing “a homo­ge­neous group with a fixed struc­ture” which had “com­mon inter­ests and hori­zons”; the pro­le­tariat, on the other hand, reduced to its atom­ized eco­nomic func­tions, would have to unify itself through its strug­gle against the bour­geoisie.93 Cap­i­tal­ism rep­re­sented the reshap­ing of soci­ety accord­ing to the bourgeoisie’s col­lec­tive interest.

For Tronti, start­ing from the forms of gen­er­al­ized exchange­abil­ity char­ac­ter­is­tic of cap­i­tal­ism, such an account of the bour­geoisie was sim­ply impos­si­ble. For a sys­tem in which the typ­i­cal, defin­ing exchange was money/labor-power, the start­ing premise had to be the con­sti­tu­tion of a class with noth­ing to sell but labor-power, the free laborer con­strained eco­nom­i­cally but not legally to sell labor-power in exchange for a wage. This, for Tronti, was the con­sti­tu­tion of the pro­le­tariat: “the prop­erly his­tor­i­cal pas­sage from labor to labor-power, that is from labor as slav­ery and ser­vice to labor-power as the sole com­mod­ity able to sub­mit wealth to value, able to val­orize wealth and thereby pro­duce cap­i­tal” (139). But the pro­le­tariat had to enter into exchange not with a class, but with indi­vid­ual cap­i­tal­ists, whose only “col­lec­tive” inter­est was their shared drive to com­pete with each other:

The his­tor­i­cal point of depar­ture sees in cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety the work­ers on one side and the cap­i­tal­ist on the other. Here again is one of the facts which imposes itself with the vio­lence of its sim­plic­ity. His­tor­i­cally we can speak of an indi­vid­ual cap­i­tal­ist: this is the socially deter­mined fig­ure which pre­sides over the con­sti­tu­tion of cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions of pro­duc­tion. As such, at least in the clas­si­cal devel­op­ment of the sys­tem, this his­tor­i­cal fig­ure does not dis­ap­pear, it is not sup­pressed or extin­guished, but only orga­nizes itself col­lec­tively, social­iz­ing itself so to speak in cap­i­tal, pre­cisely as the class rela­tion. On the other hand we can­not speak of the iso­lated worker at any his­tor­i­cal moment. In its mate­r­ial, socially deter­mined fig­ure, the worker is from his birth col­lec­tively orga­nized. From the begin­ning the work­ers, as exchange val­ues of the cap­i­tal­ist, come forth in the plural: the worker in the sin­gu­lar does not exist (232-3).

In this regard the indi­vid­ual cap­i­tal­ist per­sists, and con­tin­ues to engage in the mar­ket exchange which char­ac­ter­izes cap­i­tal­ism. But the cap­i­tal­ist class is “always some­thing else more or less than a social class. Some­thing less, since direct eco­nomic inter­est has not ceased and per­haps will not cease to present itself as divided on the cap­i­tal­ist side. Some­thing more, because the polit­i­cal power of cap­i­tal now extends its appa­ra­tus of con­trol, dom­i­na­tion, and repres­sion beyond the tra­di­tional forms taken by the State, to invest the whole struc­ture of the new soci­ety” (233).

Once labor-power is exchanged for the wage, Tronti argues, intro­duc­ing a ter­mi­no­log­i­cal dis­tinc­tion into Marx’s cat­e­gories, the pro­le­tariat is recom­posed as work­ing class: as labor-power which is coop­er­a­tive, col­lec­tive within the labor-process. This ongo­ing process of social­iza­tion of labor is the first source of rel­a­tive sur­plus value; it will later require tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment for its fur­ther growth. Here Tronti devel­ops the point implic­itly sug­gested by Panzieri; but while the lat­ter started with the indi­vid­ual worker whose labor-power was inte­grated into the fac­tory plan, Tronti iden­ti­fies a process of class recom­po­si­tion.94 Between the pro­le­tariat and the work­ing class Tronti sees “the same his­tor­i­cal suc­ces­sion and the same log­i­cal dif­fer­ence as that which we have already found between the seller of labor-power and the pro­ducer of sur­plus value” (161).

The strug­gle for a nor­mal work­ing day, for Marx so fun­da­men­tal in the log­i­cal expo­si­tion of rel­a­tive sur­plus value, man­i­fests the class strug­gle in terms which also framed the pro­le­tariat: the strug­gle to reduce a het­ero­ge­neous mass to the com­mod­ity labor-power, and the refusal to be reduced to it. This refusal is what dri­ves cap­i­tal to act in its col­lec­tive inter­est; in this strug­gle cap­i­tal con­sti­tutes itself polit­i­cally as a class, which became an absolute imper­a­tive in the moment of 1848. Marx’s writ­ings on 1848 show “the encounter and the super­im­po­si­tion of the abstract con­cept of labor with the con­crete real­ity of the worker.” At this point, Marx could sup­ple­ment his ear­lier, intu­itive reflec­tions on abstract labor with dis­cov­ery of the pecu­liar char­ac­ter­is­tics of the labor-power com­mod­ity: “the labor-power com­mod­ity as work­ing class” (161).

It was not enough, how­ever, to con­clude that waged work­ers first con­sti­tuted them­selves as a class when they became sell­ers of labor-power and were thus incor­po­rated into cap­i­tal. It was imper­a­tive not to “fix the con­cept of the work­ing class in one unique and defin­i­tive form, with­out devel­op­ment, with­out his­tory.” Just as the “inter­nal his­tory of cap­i­tal” had to include “the spe­cific analy­sis of the var­ied deter­mi­na­tions assumed by cap­i­tal in the course of its devel­op­ment,” against the easy tran­shis­tor­i­cal assump­tions of a “his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ist” tele­ol­ogy, an “inter­nal his­tory of the work­ing class” would have to be “recon­struct the moments of its for­ma­tion, the changes in its com­po­si­tion, the devel­op­ment of its orga­ni­za­tion accord­ing to the var­ied deter­mi­na­tions suc­ces­sively assumed by labor-power as pro­duc­tive force of cap­i­tal, and accord­ing to the expe­ri­ences of dif­fer­ent strug­gles, recur­ring and always renewed, with which the mass of work­ers equip them­selves as the sole adver­sary of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety” (149).

And indeed this account of the dynamic his­tor­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion and recon­sti­tu­tion of labor-power was required by the social rela­tion of sur­plus value, and the unity of cir­cu­la­tion with the process of pro­duc­tion: “The his­tory of diverse modes in which pro­duc­tive labor is extracted from the worker, that is, the his­tory of dif­fer­ent forms of pro­duc­tion of surplus-value, is the story of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety from the working-class view­point” (170). This is pre­cisely because of the twofold char­ac­ter of labor, Marx’s most trea­sured dis­cov­ery, in which both aspects were deci­sive. While one could not derive the abstract char­ac­ter of labor from the level of use-value and con­crete labor – that is, this was not a mat­ter of abstrac­tion as a psy­cho­log­i­cal effect of fac­tory time-management – the val­oriza­tion of value could not take place with­out the use-value of labor-power:

labor, the uti­liza­tion of labor-power, is work­ers’ labor, a con­crete deploy­ment, a con­cretiza­tion of abstract labor – abstract labor which finds itself already in its turn reduced to the rank of com­mod­ity, and which real­izes its value in the wage. There­fore the step where abstract labor over­turns itself and takes the con­crete form of the worker, is the process of con­sump­tion of labor-power, the moment where it becomes in action what it was only in poten­tial, the step of the real­iza­tion of the use-value of labor-power, if we may. What was already present in the oper­a­tion sale/purchase as a class rela­tion pure and sim­ple, ele­men­tary and gen­eral, has defin­i­tively acquired from this point on its spe­cific, com­plex, and total char­ac­ter (166).

This com­plex and total char­ac­ter is implied by the coop­er­a­tive and col­lec­tive form of the work­ing class. Unless indi­vid­ual labor-powers are brought into asso­ci­a­tion, they can­not “make valid [far valere], on a social scale, the spe­cial char­ac­ter of the labor-power com­mod­ity in gen­eral, that is to say can­not make abstract labor con­crete, can­not real­ize the use-value of labor-power, whose actual con­sump­tion is the secret of the process of val­oriza­tion of value, as a process of pro­duc­tion of surplus-value and there­fore of cap­i­tal” (205).

Within this process we can glimpse the the­o­ret­i­cal loca­tion of the con­cept of class com­po­si­tion: “The sale of labor-power thus pro­vides the first ele­men­tary stage, the sim­plest, of a com­po­si­tion into a class of waged work­ers: it is for this rea­son that a social mass con­strained to sell its labor-power remains the gen­eral form of the work­ing class” (149). But this remains an ele­men­tary stage, since as Marx con­cluded in his chap­ter on the work­ing day, “our worker emerges from the process of pro­duc­tion look­ing dif­fer­ent from when he entered it”; enter­ing as seller of labor power (“one owner against another owner”), the worker leaves know­ing that the pro­duc­tion process is a rela­tion of force, and that for pro­tec­tion “the work­ers have to put their heads together and, as a class, com­pel the pass­ing of a law, an all-powerful social bar­rier by which they can be pre­vented from sell­ing them­selves and their fam­i­lies into slav­ery and death by vol­un­tary con­tract with cap­i­tal.”95 For Tronti this dif­fer­ence is “a polit­i­cal leap”: “It is the leap that the pas­sage through pro­duc­tion pro­vokes in what we can call the com­po­si­tion of the work­ing class or even the com­po­si­tion of the class of work­ers” (202).

We are now in a posi­tion to under­stand why the working-class strug­gle, for Tronti, comes first in the his­tory of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment. Cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment has to be under­stood as a process of exchange in which the val­oriza­tion of value is dri­ven by the sale and pur­chase of labor-power. It is only in the social­iza­tion of labor-power within the labor process that pro­le­tar­i­ans take the asso­ci­ated form of work­ing class, in the real­iza­tion of the use-value of their labor-power by the indi­vid­ual cap­i­tal­ist. And only the resis­tance of their reduc­tion to the labor-power com­mod­ity can com­pel indi­vid­ual cap­i­tal­ists, who com­pete on the mar­ket, to form a cohe­sive class:

The par­tic­u­lar­ity of labor-power as a com­mod­ity faced with other com­modi­ties coin­cides there­fore with the specif­i­cally working-class char­ac­ter that the pro­duc­tion process of cap­i­tal takes on; and, inside of this, with the con­cen­tra­tion of a working-class ini­tia­tive in the class rela­tion, that leads to a leap in the devel­op­ment of the work­ing class and to the sub­se­quent birth of a class of cap­i­tal­ists (166).

Within the con­text of this broad eco­nomic and his­tor­i­cal the­ory, we are in a posi­tion to close the lengthy digres­sion and return to work­ers’ inquiry. Workerism’s sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery was to push the prac­tice of inquiry away from the human­ist prob­lem­atic of expe­ri­ence towards a value the­ory which was able to rein­ter­pret Marx’s cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­omy and put it to use. It implied a polit­i­cal prac­tice which affirmed shop floor pas­siv­ity and wage strug­gles as expres­sions of a nascent power of refusal of work.

We can now under­stand that work­ers’ inquiry was an inves­ti­ga­tion into the com­po­si­tion of the work­ing class, as the his­tor­i­cal body which, sep­a­rated from the means of sub­sis­tence and reduced to the sale of its labor-power, had to be formed into a social­ized pro­duc­tive force within a process of con­stant expan­sion – the expanded repro­duc­tion of the class itself, and its recom­po­si­tion in ever more tech­no­log­i­cally advanced labor processes.

To close this geneal­ogy we described a sig­nif­i­cant moment of rup­ture, the dis­cov­ery of a con­cept which opens new paths of sci­en­tific and polit­i­cal exper­i­men­ta­tion. But it was a the­ory which emerged from a spe­cific his­tor­i­cal moment. “We all have to be born some day, some­where,” Althusser remarked, “and begin think­ing and writ­ing in a given world.”96 Tronti began with the hege­mony of the fac­tory to show how the class antag­o­nism could be thought together with capitalism’s laws of motion, in a way that his pre­de­ces­sors had failed to do.97 Yet despite their the­o­ret­i­cal under­de­vel­op­ment, the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency had under­stood that pro­le­tar­ian life exists beyond the fac­tory, that it encom­passes a child­hood in the cot­ton fields, after­noons in the kitchen. And just as fem­i­nists in Italy would chal­lenge the hege­mony of the fac­tory as a mas­cu­line blindspot, Ital­ian work­erism would also have to respond to changes in cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment which they had not pre­dicted: global eco­nomic cri­sis, the restruc­tur­ing of pro­duc­tion, and the decline of fac­tory hege­mony. Attempts to develop this the­o­ret­i­cal prob­lem­atic still have to respond to this his­tor­i­cal chal­lenge, and nav­i­gate around Panzieri’s warn­ing – the risk of laps­ing into a phi­los­o­phy of his­tory sup­ported by the ontol­o­giza­tion of labor.

Although the intro­duc­tion of class com­po­si­tion iden­ti­fied cap­i­tal­ism with indus­trial labor, and the social world cre­ated by the post­war boom, at the same time it pro­vided a method which could today be used to trace the con­sti­tu­tion and trans­for­ma­tion of labor-power in the con­text of uneven devel­op­ment and global cri­sis.98 Tronti con­fesses that his and his com­rades’ fix­a­tion on the indus­trial work­ing class now presents itself as an unre­solved prob­lem: “I have come to the con­vic­tion that the work­ing class was the last great his­tor­i­cal form of social aris­toc­racy. It was a minor­ity in the midst of the peo­ple; its strug­gles changed cap­i­tal­ism but did not change the world, and the rea­son for this is pre­cisely what still needs to be under­stood.”99 We sug­gest that inquiry will be the first step in understanding.

Asad Haider is an editor of Viewpoint and a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz.

Salar Mohandesi is an editor of Viewpoint and a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.

  • 1. Karl Marx, “Enquête ouvrière” and “Work­ers’ Ques­tion­naire” in Marx-Engels Col­lected Works vol. 24. (New York: Inter­na­tional Pub­lish­ers, 1880). The Eng­lish ver­sion at has only 100 ques­tions; this is because Marx asks two sep­a­rate ques­tions about the decrease in wages dur­ing peri­ods of stag­na­tion, and their increase in peri­ods of pros­per­ity (ques­tions 73 and 74), and in this Eng­lish ver­sion the for­mer is omit­ted.
  • 2. Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Pen­guin, 1976), 98.
  • 3. Louis Althusser, Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), 65.
  • 4.Marx to Domela Nieuwen­huis In The Hague,” avail­able online at
  • 5. Kent Worces­ter, CLR James: A Polit­i­cal Biog­ra­phy (New York: State Uni­ver­sity of New York Press, 1996), 55-81; Paul Buhle, CLR James: The Artist as Rev­o­lu­tion­ary (New York: Verso, 1988), 66-99.
  • 6. For a brief, but excel­lent intro­duc­tion to the his­tory of the news­pa­per, see “Intro­duc­tion to Part 1” in Pages from a Black Radical’s Note­book: A James Boggs Reader, ed. Stephen M. Ward (Detroit: Wayne State Uni­ver­sity Press, 2011), 37-41.
  • 7. “Gripes and Griev­ances,” Cor­re­spon­dence, vol. 2, no. 2 (Jan­u­ary 22, 1955), 4.
  • 8. Grace Lee Boggs, “CLR. James: Orga­niz­ing in the USA, 1938-1953,” in CLR James: His Intel­lec­tual Lega­cies, ed. Sel­wyn Cud­joe and William Cain (Amherst: Uni­ver­sity of Mass­a­chu­setts Press, 1995), 164. Paul Buhle, on the other hand, explictly claims that Grace Lee actu­ally wrote the text, in, Buhle, CLR James, 90.
  • 9. Ph. Guil­laume, “L’Ouvrier amer­i­can par Paul Romano,” Social­isme ou Bar­barie no. 1 (Mars/Avril 1949), 78.
  • 10. It is sig­nif­i­cant that Singer was not address­ing this to phil­an­thropists, bour­geois spe­cial­ists, or even sym­pa­thetic intel­lec­tu­als. This was for work­ers. “I am not writ­ing in order to gain the approval or sym­pa­thy of these intel­lec­tu­als for the work­ers’ actions. I want instead to illus­trate to the work­ers them­selves that some­times when their con­di­tions seem ever­last­ing and hope­less, they are in actu­al­ity reveal­ing by their every-day reac­tions and expres­sions that they are the road to a far-reaching change.” Paul Romano and Ria Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker (New York, 1947), 1.
  • 11. Marx, Cap­i­tal vol. 1, 618; Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker, 52.
  • 12. Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker, 47-48.
  • 13. Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker, 57.
  • 14. Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker.
  • 15. CLR James, Raya Dunayevskaya, and Grace Lee Boggs, “World War II and Social Rev­o­lu­tion” in The Invad­ing Social­ist Soci­ety, avail­able online at
  • 16. I.I. Rubin, “Abstract Labour and Value in Marx’s Sys­tem,” Cap­i­tal & Class 2 (1978). See Rubin’s admirably con­cise def­i­n­i­tion: “Abstract labour is the des­ig­na­tion for that part of the total social labour which was equalised in the process of social divi­sion of labour through the equa­tion of the prod­ucts of labour on the mar­ket.”
  • 17. Rubin, “Abstract Labour and Value.”
  • 18. “The rough draft of this pam­phlet was given to work­ers across the coun­try. Their reac­tion was as one. They were sur­prised and grat­i­fied to see in print the expe­ri­ences and thoughts which they have rarely put into words. Work­ers arrive home from the fac­tory too exhausted to read more than the daily comics. Yet most of the work­ers who read the pam­phlet stayed up well into the night to fin­ish the read­ing once they had started.” Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker, 1.
  • 19. In his intro­duc­tion to the French trans­la­tion of “The Amer­i­can Worker,” Philippe Guil­laume called it “pro­le­tar­ian doc­u­men­tary lit­er­a­ture.” For more on this, see Stephen Hastings-King, “On Claude Lefort’s ‘Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence,’” in this issue.
  • 20. “A Worker’s Inquiry” was first pub­lished in the United States by The New Inter­na­tional in Decem­ber 1938.
  • 21. She wrote: “See, ‘A Work­ers’ Inquiry’ by Karl Marx in which one hun­dred and one ques­tions are asked of the work­ers’ them­selves, deal­ing with every­thing from lava­to­ries, soap, wine, strikes and unions to ‘the gen­eral phys­i­cal, intel­lec­tual, and moral con­di­tions of life of the work­ing men and women in your trade.’” Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker, 59.
  • 22. Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker, 1.
  • 23. Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker, 12.
  • 24. Selma James, “A Woman’s Place” in The Power of Women and the Sub­ver­sion of the Com­mu­nity (Lon­don: Falling Wall Press, 1972), 58, 64.
  • 25. It is only Mar­tin Glaberman’s 1972 pref­ace to the pam­phlet which finally reveals that Phil Singer worked at Gen­eral Motors fac­tory in New Jer­sey.
  • 26. Quoted in Rachel Peter­son, “Cor­re­spon­dence: Jour­nal­ism, Anti­com­mu­nism, and Marx­ism in 1950s Detroit,” in Anti­com­mu­nism and the African Amer­i­can Free­dom Move­ment: “Another side of the Story,” ed. Rob­bie Lieber­man and Clarence Lang (New York: Pal­grave Macmil­lan, 2009), 146. As if to dra­mat­i­cally con­firm this, Boggs’s own pseu­do­nym, Ria Stone, is often misiden­ti­fied as Raya Dunayevskaya.
  • 27. Peter­son, “Cor­re­spon­dence,” 146.
  • 28. Selma James, Sex, Race, and Class – The Per­spec­tive of Win­ning: A Selec­tion of Writ­ings, 1952-2011 (Oak­land: PM Press, 2012), 13-14; Frank Rosen­garten, Urbane Rev­o­lu­tion­ary: CLR. James and the Strug­gle for a New Soci­ety (Mis­sis­sippi: Uni­ver­sity of Mis­sis­sippi Press, 2008), 89.
  • 29. Charles Denby [Si Owens], Indig­nant Heart: A Black Work­ers’ Jour­nal (Detroit: Wayne State Uni­ver­sity Press, 1978), xi. This edi­tion was attrib­uted to Charles Denby, Owens’s more com­mon pseu­do­nym, and the one he used for most of his arti­cle in Cor­re­spon­dence. It is also sig­nif­i­cant that Owens still wrote under a pseu­do­nym in 1978, even though McCarthy­ism had clearly passed.
  • 30. Denby, Indig­nant Heart, xi.
  • 31. Peter­son, “Cor­re­spon­dence,” 123.
  • 32. Con­stance Webb, Not With­out Love: Mem­oirs (Lebanon, NH: Uni­ver­sity Press of New Eng­land, 2003), 266.
  • 33. Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker.
  • 34. James, “A Woman’s Place,” 79.
  • 35. For an excel­lent intro­duc­tion to the group in Eng­lish, see Mar­cel van der Lin­den, “Social­isme ou Bar­barie: A French Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Group (1949-1965),” Left His­tory vol. 5, no. 1, 1997. Repub­lished at” For a gen­eral his­tory, see Philippe Got­traux, “Social­isme ou Bar­barie”: Un engage­ment poli­tique et intel­lectuel dans la France de l’après-guerre (Paris: Edi­tions Payot Lau­sanne, 1997).
  • 36.From Work­ers’ Auton­omy to Social Auton­omy: An inter­view with Daniel Blan­chard by Amador Fernández-Savater,” avail­able online at
  • 37. Philippe Guil­laume, “L’Ouvrier Amer­i­cain par Paul Romano,” Social­isme ou Bar­barie no. 1 (Mars/Avril 1949), 78; trans­lated in this issue of View­point.
  • 38. For more on this fas­ci­nat­ing fig­ure, see Stephen Hastings-King’s forth­com­ing book on Social­isme ou Bar­barie.
  • 39. “Un jour­nal ouvrier aux Etats-unis,” Social­isme ou Bar­barie, no. 13 (jan-mars 1954): 82.
  • 40. Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, “CLR James and the Fate of Marx­ism,” in CLR James: His Intel­lec­tual Lega­cies, ed. Sel­wyn Cud­joe and William Cain (Amherst: Uni­ver­sity of Mass­a­chu­setts Press, 1995), 287.
  • 41. “Work­ers and Intel­lec­tu­als,” Cor­re­spon­dence, vol. 2, no. 3 (Feb­ru­ary 5, 1955): 4.
  • 42. Grace Lee Boggs, Liv­ing For Change: An Auto­bi­og­ra­phy (Min­neapo­lis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press, 1998), 67.
  • 43. An anony­mous ex-member of Cor­re­spon­dence quoted in Ivar Oxaal, Black Intel­lec­tu­als Come to Power (Cam­bridge: Schenkman Books, 1968), 78.
  • 44. For a detailed dis­cus­sion of Lefort’s take on this prob­lem, see Stephen Hastings-King, in this issue.
  • 45. Claude Lefort, “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence,” trans­lated in this issue.
  • 46. Lefort, “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence.”
  • 47. Lefort, “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence.”
  • 48. For a fas­ci­nat­ing account of this paper by a mil­i­tant closely involved in its devel­op­ment, see Henri Simon’s con­tri­bu­tion to this issue.
  • 49. “Que voulons-nous?” in Tri­bune Ouvrière no. 1 (mai 1954), reprinted in Social­isme ou Bar­barie nos. 15/16: 74.
  • 50. Mothé was one of the few work­ers in the group, which led many to put him on a kind of pedestal. As Lefort has recalled “Mothé’s pro­pos­als, often very rich but some­times also con­fused, car­ried weight for many because he was sup­posed to ‘rep­re­sent’ Renault. Mothé was con­scious of the role he was led to play and while he took advan­tage of it, he was also exas­per­ated by it. The cli­mate would have been very dif­fer­ent if we had had more work­ers among us.” “An inter­view with Claude Lefort,” Telos 30 (Win­ter 1976-77): 178. This lack of work­ers in the group might have been a rea­son for the short­age of worker nar­ra­tives that con­stantly plagued Social­isme ou Bar­barie. This also marks a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence between Cor­re­spon­dence and Social­isme ou Bar­barie. The first was over­whelm­ingly working-class. In 1954 it boasted a mem­ber­ship of 75 work­ers and only 5 self-described intel­lec­tu­als; see The Cor­re­spon­dence Book­let (Detroit: Cor­re­spon­dence, 1954), 1. In con­trast, Social­isme ou Barbarie’s mem­ber­ship largely con­sisted of intel­lec­tu­als or stu­dents
  • 51. Daniel Mothé, “Le prob­lème d’un jour­nal ouvrier,” Social­isme ou Bar­barie no. 17 (juillet-septembre 1955), 30; trans­lated in this issue of View­point.
  • 52. Mothé often uses the term “rev­o­lu­tion­ary ide­ol­ogy” instead of rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory.
  • 53. Note how Mothé sub­sti­tutes “rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tion” for “rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants.” This seems to sug­gest that, accord­ing to this model, the orga­ni­za­tion can be com­posed only by mil­i­tants. This might be a reflec­tion of the sit­u­a­tion Social­isme ou Bar­barie found itself in: a group that hap­pened to be com­posed almost entirely of intel­lec­tu­als is turned into the­o­ret­i­cal type.
  • 54. Mothé, “Le prob­lème d’un jour­nal ouvrier,” 47.
  • 55. These strin­gent qual­i­fi­ca­tions exac­er­bated the major prob­lem fac­ing this project: the unwill­ing­ness of most work­ers to write. More on this below.
  • 56. The edi­to­r­ial core of Tri­bune Ouvrière was already wracked by inter­nal ide­o­log­i­cal dis­putes. Although he sup­ported a closer rela­tion­ship between the two jour­nals, Mothé did not want to turn Tri­bune Ouvrière into a polit­i­cal jour­nal, in other words, he opposed the idea that the jour­nal should com­mu­ni­cate overtly polit­i­cal ideas to the work­ers, and held that it should pri­mar­ily be a space where work­ers could dis­cuss their expe­ri­ences. Got­traux, “Social­isme ou Bar­barie”, 67
  • 57. For more on Henri Simon’s stance on inquiry, the work­ers’ paper, and this broader expe­ri­ence, see his con­tri­bu­tion to this issue.
  • 58. Got­traux, “Social­isme ou Bar­barie”, 86.
  • 59. For more on this con­junc­ture, see “Inter­view with Cas­to­ri­adis,” Telos 23 (Spring 1975), 135.
  • 60. For more on this split, Mar­cel van der Lin­den, “Social­isme ou Bar­barie: A French Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Group (1949-1965).” For a brief analy­sis from the per­spec­tive of a mil­i­tant who was involved, see Henri Simon, “1958-1998: Com­mu­nism in France: Social­isme ou Bar­barie, ICO and Echanges,” avail­able online at
  • 61. Daniel Blan­chard saw a per­fect illus­tra­tion of this in the rela­tion­ship between Mothé and Cas­to­ri­adis: “Whereas the Lenin­ist orga­ni­za­tions kept the man­ual and intel­lec­tual work­ers strictly sep­a­rated in spe­cific roles (the lat­ter edu­cat­ing the for­mer in any case), in SouB we devoted spe­cial efforts—which were often unsuccessful—to abol­ish this sep­a­ra­tion. For exam­ple, the rela­tion­ship between Daniel Mothé and Cas­to­ri­adis was an inter­est­ing exam­ple of the col­lab­o­ra­tion of a very intel­li­gent worker, as Mothé was, and a the­o­reti­cian like Cas­to­ri­adis. The ideas that Cas­to­ri­adis elab­o­rated helped Mothé to under­stand his own real­ity in the fac­tory. And Mothé was then able to ana­lyze his expe­ri­ence in a very con­crete way that in turn nour­ished the the­o­ret­i­cal labors of Cas­to­ri­adis; Blan­chard, “Auton­omy.” Henri Simon has also com­mented on this pair­ing, but from a more crit­i­cal per­spec­tive: “In Social­isme ou Bar­barie, there was a kind of har­mony [osmose], sym­bio­sis Mothé/Castoriadis. There was almost always placed side by side in Social­isme ou Bar­barie a the­o­ret­i­cal arti­cle by Cas­to­ri­adis and a con­crete arti­cle by Mothé. Mothé saw the fac­tory through the the­o­ret­i­cal lenses of Cas­to­ri­adis”; “Entre­tien d’Henri Simon avec l’Anti-mythes (1974),” avail­able online at
  • 62. Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, Polit­i­cal and Social Writ­ings, Vol­ume 2, 1955-1960: From the Work­ers’ Strug­gle Against Bureau­cracy to Rev­o­lu­tion in the Age of Mod­ern Cap­i­tal­ism (Min­neapo­lis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press, 1988), 213. Fur­ther ref­er­ences to this col­lec­tion are given in the text.
  • 63. For a fas­ci­nat­ing auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal account of the phe­nom­e­non, see Stan Weir, “The Infor­mal Work Group” in Rank and File: Per­sonal His­to­ries by Working-Class Orga­niz­ers, ed. Alice and Staughton Lynd, expanded edi­tion (Chicago: Hay­mar­ket Books, 2011).
  • 64. Got­traux, “Social­isme ou Bar­barie”, 120-121.
  • 65. Indeed, it appears that Pou­voir Ouvrier never really learned the lessons of Tri­bune Ouvrière; Cas­to­ri­adis found him­self writ­ing another arti­cle, this time in Pou­voir Ouvrier, in which he tried, yet again, to the­o­rize why work­ers sim­ply were not writ­ing. See Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, “What Really Mat­ters” in PSW 2, 223-5.
  • 66. Claude Lefort, “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence.”
  • 67. “Inter­view with Lefort,” 179.
  • 68. “Inter­view with Lefort,” 183.
  • 69. See “The Rela­tions of Pro­duc­tion in Rus­sia” in Polit­i­cal and Social Writ­ings, Vol­ume 1, 1946-1955: From the Cri­tique of Bureau­cracy to the Pos­i­tive Con­tent of Social­ism, trans. and ed. David Ames Cur­tis (Min­neapo­lis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press, 1988), and our com­men­tary in “Devi­a­tions, Part 1: The Castoriadis-Pannekoek Exchange.”
  • 70. Cesare Casarino and Anto­nio Negri, In Praise of the Com­mon (Min­neapo­lis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota, 2008), 54.
  • 71. Danilo Mon­taldi, Bisogna sognare. Scritti 1952-1975 (Milano: Col­i­brì, 1994).
  • 72. Ser­gio Bologna and Patrick Cun­ing­hame, “For an Analy­sis of Autono­mia – An Inter­view with Ser­gio Bologna,” avail­able online at
  • 73. Mon­taldi him­self had believed that soci­ol­ogy, as Steve Wright recounts, “could help in the devel­op­ment of rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory”; see Storm­ing Heaven: Class Com­po­si­tion and Strug­gle in Ital­ian Auton­o­mist Marx­ism (Lon­don: Pluto Press, 2002), 21-25. On the divi­sion within Quaderni Rossi, see Marta Malo de Molina, “Com­mon Notions, part 1: workers-inquiry, co-research, consciousness-raising,” trans. Mari­bel Casas-Cortés and Sebas­t­ian Cobar­ru­bias of the Notas Rojas Col­lec­tive Chapel Hill, eicp (2006). Finally, for more on core­search or con­ricerca, and the influ­ence of both Mon­taldi and another of Alquati’s pre­cur­sors, Alessan­dro Piz­zorno, see Guido Borio, Francesca Pozzi, and Gigi Rog­gero, “Con­ricerca as Polit­i­cal Action” in Utopian Ped­a­gogy: Rad­i­cal Exper­i­ments Against Neolib­eral Glob­al­iza­tion, ed. Mark Coté, Richard J.F. Day, and Greig de Peuter (Toronto: Uni­ver­sity of Toronto Press, 2007).
  • 74. See Wright, Storm­ing Heaven, 46-58; the texts them­selves are col­lected in Romano Alquati, Sulla Fiat (Milano: Fel­trinelli, 1975): “Relazione sulle ‘forze nuove.’ Con­vegno del PSI sulla FIAT, gen­naio 1961”; “Doc­u­menti sulla lotta di classe alla FIAT”; “Tradizione e rin­no­va­mento alla FIAT-Ferriere.” A par­tial trans­la­tion of the 1962 text, “Organic Com­po­si­tion of Cap­i­tal and Labor-Power at Olivetti,” is pre­sented in this issue. For a very per­cep­tive analy­sis of Alquati’s Olivetti text, and the tra­jec­tory of inquiry in gen­eral, see Wild­cat, “The Renascence of Operaismo,” avail­able online at
  • 75. Raniero Panzieri, “The Cap­i­tal­ist Use of Machin­ery,” trans. Quintin Hoare, avail­able online at
  • 76. Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume 1, 544.
  • 77. Since the fur­ther devel­op­ment of the ortho­dox posi­tion was that col­lab­o­ra­tion between the unions, the state, and the employ­ers, rep­re­sented the dis­place­ment of com­pe­ti­tion towards plan­ning, and there­fore a step towards social­ism, Panzieri also made the argu­ment that plan­ning rep­re­sented the nec­es­sary social exten­sion of capital’s despo­tism in the fac­tory. “The basic fac­tor in this process is the con­tin­ual growth of con­stant cap­i­tal with respect to vari­able cap­i­tal”; as machines grew more numer­ous than work­ers, cap­i­tal had to exer­cise an “absolute con­trol,” impos­ing its ratio­nal­ity of pro­duc­tion upons work­ers, and through the growth of monop­o­lies extend­ing its plan “from the fac­tory to the mar­ket, to the exter­nal social sphere” (“Cap­i­tal­ist Use of Machin­ery.”) This the­sis would be the sub­ject of Panzieri’s last major essay, “Sur­plus Value and Plan­ning,” in issue 4 of Quaderni Rossi (trans­lated by Julian Bees and avail­able online at In this sense, while Panzieri’s argu­ment rep­re­sented a sophis­ti­cated the­o­ret­i­cal advance and had a worth­while polit­i­cal func­tion, it also con­tained a cer­tain reifi­ca­tion of the fea­tures of post­war cap­i­tal­ism, and lost some of its clar­ity on the nature of cap­i­tal­ist exchange rela­tions. Inter­est­ingly, this essay was fol­lowed in Quaderni Rossi with Marx’s so-called “Frag­ment on Machines” from the Grun­drisse.
  • 78. Panzieri, “Cap­i­tal­ist Use of Machin­ery.”
  • 79. See Wild­cat, “Renascence of Operaismo,” for some inter­est­ing com­ments on Piazza Statuto in the con­text of work­ers’ inquiry.
  • 80. Quoted in Robert Lum­ley, “Review Arti­cle: Work­ing Class Auton­omy and the Cri­sis,” Cap­i­tal and Class 12 (Win­ter 1980): 129; also dis­cussed in Wright, Storm­ing Heaven, 58-62. Lum­ley con­sid­ers Tronti’s inter­ven­tion to be “a the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal regres­sion”; as we will try to demon­strate below, we dis­agree with this assess­ment
  • 81. Mario Tronti, “Lenin in Eng­land,” avail­able online at
  • 82. Raniero Panzieri, “Social­ist Uses of Work­ers’ Inquiry,” trans. Ari­anna Bove, eicp (2006).
  • 83. Tronti, Noi operaisti, quoted in Adelino Zanini, “On the Philo­soph­i­cal Foun­da­tions of Ital­ian Work­erism,” His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism 18 (2010): 60.
  • 84. Mario Tronti, Operai e cap­i­tale (Turin: Ein­audi, 1966), 128, 179, 209-10, 220, 256. Trans­la­tions from this text are ours, with the invalu­able help of Evan Calder Williams, unless oth­er­wise noted. We also prof­itably con­sulted the French trans­la­tion by Yann Moulier-Boutang and Giuseppe Bezza, avail­able online at Fur­ther ref­er­ences to the orig­i­nal Ital­ian are given in the text
  • 85. Here of course Tronti recalls Marx’s Cri­tique of the Gotha Pro­gramme.
  • 86. Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume 2, trans. David Fern­bach (Lon­don: Pen­guin, 1978), 115; Tronti quotes this pas­sage in Operai e cap­i­tale, 144-5.
  • 87. This is also quoted in Zanini, “Philo­soph­i­cal Foun­da­tions,” 50. Zanini’s is one of the few texts in Eng­lish which addresses Tronti’s eco­nomic analy­sis.
  • 88. Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume 2, 115; sec­ond sen­tence quoted by Tronti, Operai e cap­i­tale, 148-9.
  • 89. Hel­mut Reichelt, “Marx’s Cri­tique of Eco­nomic Cat­e­gories,” trans. Werner Strauss and ed. Jim Kin­caid, His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism 15 (2007): 11. It is worth not­ing that work­erism was not always able to suc­cess­fully nav­i­gate between the two; while Reichelt’s “quasi-ontological cat­e­gory” refers to the con­cep­tion which under­stands abstract labor as expen­di­ture of phys­i­o­log­i­cal energy, mea­sur­able in calo­ries, work­erism would at times be cap­ti­vated by labor as the “liv­ing, form-giving fire,” which is at times sug­gested in Tronti’s assess­ment of the Grun­drisse as “a more advanced book” than Cap­i­tal. (Tronti, Operai e cap­i­tale, 210; trans­lated in Mur­phy 339). The Grun­drisse played an ambigu­ous role in the his­tory of work­erism, pro­vid­ing new the­o­ret­i­cal ener­gies while also obscur­ing the rup­tures in Marx’s eco­nomic thought. Future research will have to draw these dis­tinc­tions clearly, espe­cially to move beyond the Grun­drisse’s prob­lem­atic of “cap­i­tal in gen­eral”; see Michael Hein­rich, “Cap­i­tal in Gen­eral and the Struc­ture of Marx’s Cap­i­tal,” Cap­i­tal and Class 13:63 (1989).
  • 90. This argu­ment is pre­sented through­out the intro­duc­tion to the essay, pages 123-43, with atten­tion to a range of Marx’s other early man­u­scripts.
  • 91. Hel­mut Reichelt, “Social Real­ity as Appear­ance: Some Notes on Marx’s Con­cep­tion of Real­ity,” trans. Werner Bone­feld, Human Dig­nity, eds. Werner Bone­feld and Kos­mas Psy­cho­pe­dis (Alder­shot: Ash­gate, 2005), 40. Reichelt ends this arti­cle (65) with com­ments on the cat­e­gory of class which, in con­trast to Tronti’s, do not man­age to incor­po­rate Marx’s close atten­tion to the his­tor­i­cal con­sti­tu­tion of the pro­le­tariat, and its recom­po­si­tion in the labor process.
  • 92. Reichelt, “Marx’s Cri­tique,” 22.
  • 93. Lefort, “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence”; see also the some­what dif­fer­ent argu­ment, which refers to waged labor and tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment along­side the bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion, in Cas­to­ri­adis, “Mod­ern Cap­i­tal­ism and Rev­o­lu­tion,” 259-60.
  • 94. Com­pare to Raniero Panzieri, “Sur­plus Value and Plan­ning”: “The rela­tion­ship between the work­ers, their coop­er­a­tion, appears only after the sale of their labour-power, which involves the sim­ple rela­tion­ship of indi­vid­ual work­ers to cap­i­tal.” It is worth not­ing that while Panzieri’s 1964 account was based on the dis­place­ment of com­pe­ti­tion by plan­ning, Tronti’s descrip­tion of “the plan of cap­i­tal” a year ear­lier in Quaderni Rossi had rep­re­sented it as the high­est level of devel­op­ment of the social­iza­tion of cap­i­tal still medi­ated by com­pe­ti­tion, in the indi­vid­ual capitalist’s pur­suit of prof­its higher than the aver­age: “Indi­vid­ual enter­prises, or entire ‘priv­i­leged’ pro­duc­tive activ­i­ties, along with the propul­sive func­tion of the whole sys­tem, con­stantly tend to break from within the total social cap­i­tal in order to sub­se­quently re-compose it at a higher level. The strug­gle among cap­i­tal­ists con­tin­ues, but now it func­tions directly within the devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal.” Plan­ning rep­re­sented the exten­sion of capital’s despo­tism to the state, not a new phase dis­plac­ing com­pet­i­tive cap­i­tal­ism: “The anar­chy of cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion is not can­celled: it is sim­ply socially orga­nized.” See “Social Cap­i­tal,” avail­able online at, and the orig­i­nal col­lected in Operai e cap­i­tale, 60-85.
  • 95. Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume 1, 415-6.
  • 96. Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brew­ster (Lon­don: Verso, 1969), 74.
  • 97. Intro­duced in “Fac­tory and Soci­ety” in the sec­ond issue of Quaderni Rossi (1962), col­lected in Tronti, Operai e cap­i­tale, 39-59; see also Ser­gio Bologna, “The Factory-Society Rela­tion­ship as an His­tor­i­cal Cat­e­gory,” avail­able online at (trans­la­tion of “Rap­porto società-fabbrica come cat­e­go­ria stor­ica,” Primo Mag­gio 2, 1974).
  • 98. For an account of the work­erist attempt to develop the the­ory of money and class com­po­si­tion in the con­text of the eco­nomic insta­bil­ity of the early 1970s, see Steve Wright, “Rev­o­lu­tion from Above? Money and Class-Composition in Ital­ian Operaismo” in Karl Heinz-Roth and Mar­cel van der Lin­den, ed., Beyond Marx (Lei­den: Brill, forth­com­ing).
  • 99. Mario Tronti, “Towards a Cri­tique of Polit­i­cal Democ­racy,” trans. Alberto Toscano, Cos­mos and His­tory, 5:1 (2009): 74.


Juan Conatz
Oct 30 2013 05:40

Work in progress (100 footnotes!)

Nov 4 2013 13:00

Probably common knowledge amongst some in our milieu but the specific connections between 'Socialisme ou Barbarie' and various influential figures of Italian autonomist marxism underlined some theoretical connections that I had observed in relation to the 'Worker's Inquiry' theme elsewhere. So thanks for this.

Juan Conatz
Jan 20 2014 05:18

Finally, after almost 3 months, finished the footnotes and reformatting on this 20,000 word monster.

Nov 11 2014 08:08

Juan Conatz, I really appreciate your efforts to put texts related to worker's inquiry. And you even still continue to do so, that is superb.