Workers’ Inquiry: A Genealogy

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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.19 But 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 reinforced 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.

  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. 

Authors of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint and author of Mistaken Identity: Anti-Racism and the Struggle Against White Supremacy (Verso, Spring 2018).

is a founding editor of Viewpoint and a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Pennsylvania.