Notes on the Political Over the Longue Durée


“Pol­i­tics” dis­tin­guish­es itself from the “polit­i­cal,” which has as a char­ac­ter­is­tic that of con­tem­plat­ing, along­side the state, oth­er hold­ers [tito­lari], oth­er sub­jects of polit­i­cal real­i­tyHere then is a his­to­ry of these sub­jects that is  any­thing but over.
— Mario Tron­ti1

Writ­ten towards the end of what we might call the “sec­ond peri­od” of Tronti’s reflec­tions, that of the so-called “auton­o­my of the Polit­i­cal,” sand­wiched between the more famous phase of Operais­mo and the – almost com­plete­ly unknown to the Anglo­phone world – “third peri­od” polit­i­cal the­o­log­i­cal phase, that of the twi­light [tra­mon­to] of the polit­i­cal, the short text trans­lat­ed here will come to many Anglo­phone read­ers of Tron­ti as a sur­prise. The hereti­cal Marx­ist, the author of Work­ers and Cap­i­tal who ana­lyzed the devel­op­ment and dynam­ics of the “mass work­er” and argued that the work­ing class was the dynam­ic ele­ment of cap­i­tal­ism – with­in and against – but always shift­ing cap­i­tal on (every inno­va­tion a failed rev­o­lu­tion), and that the polit­i­cal form of cap­i­tal was deter­mined by the inten­si­ty and form of the strug­gle, now shifts the the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work onto anoth­er, much more his­tor­i­cal lev­el: the longue durée of the cap­i­tal­ist state from the 16th cen­tu­ry.

In the first phase of his work, Tron­ti con­front­ed the the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal prob­lems that stemmed from the dynam­ics of indus­tri­al cap­i­tal spread­ing at break­neck speed through­out the Ital­ian penin­su­la in the 1950s and ‘60s, neo-cap­i­tal­ism (as it was known at the time), along­side the mas­sive exten­sion and con­cen­tra­tion of the work­ing class in terms of con­di­tion and uni­fi­ca­tion of desire – and of the need to orga­nize this spon­tane­ity. In the sec­ond phase, the inter­na­tion­al cri­sis of cap­i­tal in the late-‘60s and ‘70s revived, for Tron­ti and oth­ers, ques­tions of past cap­i­tal­ist respons­es to eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal cri­sis, bring­ing the state into relief. As Tron­ti argues in a num­ber of texts through­out the 1970s, with the cri­sis of cap­i­tal of 1929, with the “Great Trans­for­ma­tion” dis­cussed so insight­ful­ly by Karl Polanyi, cap­i­tal­ism would nev­er be the same again. The role of the state, of pol­i­tics – of bour­geois pol­i­tics – would be that of sta­bi­liza­tion. So, where­as cap­i­tal­ism is cri­sis, as so many have argued since Marx’s day, the state is order.2 It is this con­junc­ture – cap­i­tal­ism and state, cri­sis and order – that becomes the focus of Tronti’s thought from this peri­od, dri­ven by the con­crete shifts on the ground that con­front­ed the work­ing class and its orga­ni­za­tions. In the rest of this brief intro­duc­tion, I shall try to out­line the rea­sons for this shift.


The “very gist, the liv­ing soul, of Marx­ism – a con­crete analy­sis of a con­crete sit­u­a­tion”3; so why, pre­cise­ly at this time – that of the cri­sis of the inter­na­tion­al cap­i­tal of the 1970s – does Tron­ti decide that this “con­crete sit­u­a­tion” can best be ana­lyzed through a study of the devel­op­ment of the “polit­i­cal” and of the bour­geois state (which are by no means syn­ony­mous, as we shall see) since the 16th cen­tu­ry? Why is this the peri­od in which Tron­ti decid­ed to com­pose his first and only mono­graph, on Hegel of all peo­ple (Hegel Politi­co, 1975), an edit­ed vol­ume on the Eng­lish Civ­il War (Sta­to e Riv­o­luzione in Inghilter­ra, 1977),4 and a sub­se­quent four-vol­ume edit­ed anthol­o­gy, of excerpts and crit­i­cal essays on the lead­ing bour­geois the­o­rists from 1500-1800 (Il Politi­co, 1979-1982 – from which the trans­la­tion below is drawn)? It should be not­ed, first of all, that this is by no means all that he worked on dur­ing this peri­od – he con­tin­ued to write on cur­rent affairs, such as the rela­tion­ship that the Ital­ian Com­mu­nist Par­ty (PCI) should main­tain with extra-par­lia­men­tary move­ments and par­ties, the role of the Chris­t­ian Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty (DC) in the state-sys­tem, as well as more gen­er­al arti­cles on the nature of the polit­i­cal,5 and stud­ies of more recent phas­es of cap­i­tal­ist restruc­tur­ing such as the New Deal and Weimar.6 Along­side the impor­tant stud­ies of the con­tem­po­rary sit­u­a­tion, he also sat on the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee of the Ital­ian Com­mu­nist Par­ty dur­ing the peri­od of the “His­toric Com­pro­mise.” Hence, although his work was not restrict­ed to the study of the ear­ly his­to­ry of the bour­geois state, it is clear that dur­ing this peri­od, from the mid-1970s till the ear­ly ‘80s, much of Tronti’s the­o­ret­i­cal work was focused upon the bour­geois state since the 16th cen­tu­ry, and that this deci­sion he saw as essen­tial to renew­ing the the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal tools of the work­ers’ move­ment and its par­ty. Why? What was the ques­tion to which this course of study was to pro­vide an answer, the prob­lem to which this would be a solu­tion? And what of these prob­lems, these ques­tions, is alive today after – or with­in – the Great Reces­sion?

One path towards an answer would lead us through the fraught ter­ri­to­ry of the “auton­o­my of the polit­i­cal,” the infa­mous term first dis­cussed in a lec­ture in 1972 (pub­lished only five years lat­er), and that sparked Tronti’s inves­ti­ga­tions into the longue durée of the state. Where­as the “auton­o­my” traced here was devel­oped through an analy­sis of the struc­ture and func­tion of the state fol­low­ing the Great Crash (but also the trans­for­ma­tion of the Sovi­et State under Lenin was a per­sis­tent ref­er­ence point), we will see that this proved to be just the first step towards a longer analy­sis of the polit­i­cal in which the bour­geois state – as the­o­rized by Hegel and return­ing to the fore in the 1930s – was sim­ply the high­est or lat­est incar­na­tion of the polit­i­cal.7

Let us begin, then, by briefly out­lin­ing the – fre­quent­ly mis­un­der­stood – prob­lem that Tron­ti encoun­tered in this peri­od. Doing so will help us under­stand why the his­to­ry of the bour­geois state, from its ori­gins in the 16th cen­tu­ry, becomes so impor­tant for Tron­ti at this spe­cif­ic his­tor­i­cal moment; it will also serve to cor­rect some of the mis­un­der­stand­ings that have bedev­illed many sub­se­quent inter­pre­ta­tions, stand­ing in the way of an ade­quate the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal inter­pre­ta­tion of the ques­tion of the auton­o­my of the polit­i­cal.


The first thing to note is that the series of reflec­tions that would con­verge on the idea of the auton­o­my of the polit­i­cal, did not come ful­ly formed and, arguably, nev­er did find a defin­i­tive for­mu­la­tion.8 The auton­o­my of the polit­i­cal can be best described as a field of forces, of unre­solved ten­sions that cir­cum­scribe a prob­lem­at­ic the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal space that stems from a con­crete con­junc­tur­al intu­ition: that once cap­i­tal­ism ceas­es to be a pro­gres­sive force, i.e. when it ceas­es to be able to inte­grate the work­ing class through a reformist moment of wage increas­es and height­ened con­sump­tion (as dur­ing the so-called Fordist-com­pro­mise), the com­mand of the state by bour­geois par­ties per­mits the strate­gic use of cri­sis – most notably under Thatch­er and Rea­gan – to restruc­ture the work­ing class, frag­ment­ing and iso­lat­ing it geo­graph­i­cal­ly, sec­to­ri­al­ly or with­in the space of pro­duc­tion, there­by per­mit­ting the process of the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal to be re-estab­lished on a new and more advanced ter­rain of inte­gra­tion.9 This intu­ition of the active role of the state in the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal­would be devel­oped fur­ther, in a series of analy­ses of the rela­tion between eco­nom­ic cri­sis and the polit­i­cal to an inves­ti­ga­tion into the his­to­ry of the bour­geois state since the Great Depres­sion.

The auton­o­my of the polit­i­cal iden­ti­fies a phe­nom­e­non of the Great Trans­for­ma­tion. It accounts for how the bour­geoisie, con­front­ed with eco­nom­ic cri­sis, used the state to restruc­ture soci­ety from above, in tan­dem with cap­i­tal. This is a neces­si­ty dri­ven by cri­sis and by the com­bined and uneven devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal and of its state, of the mech­a­nisms of the state, some­times in advance (as dur­ing the New Deal), more often retard­ed with respect to cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment (as in the Italy of the 1960s-‘70s); of the dif­fer­ent artic­u­la­tions of frac­tions of cap­i­tal with one anoth­er; and of cap­i­tal and its state in rela­tion to the lev­el of devel­op­ment of its great antag­o­nist, the work­ing class. The ques­tion of the auton­o­my of the polit­i­cal is the ques­tion of the mech­a­nisms at the dis­pos­al of cap­i­tal10 to medi­ate between, to man­age and to coor­di­nate its frag­ments, its advances and delays, and its antag­o­nist – a func­tion that is ini­tial­ly called upon when the mech­a­nism of devel­op­ment breaks down. The ques­tion to which the auton­o­my of the polit­i­cal is an answer, is not only  – as so many left crit­ics have described it, and despite evi­dent ambi­gu­i­ties and rhetor­i­cal excess­es11 – that of the prop­er rela­tion of the Par­ty to the class or to the state, or – for that mat­ter – of the class to the state (although it is also this). The prob­lem is not mere­ly that of the cor­rect form of polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion; the prob­lem is also how to count polit­i­cal­ly with­in the bour­geois state.12 More specif­i­cal­ly, the real­i­ty of the 1970s posed a prob­lem with two com­po­nent parts: giv­en the auton­o­my of the polit­i­cal – “a fact of cap­i­tal … I repeat, so that peo­ple stop pre­tend­ing not to under­stand”13 – how can the work­ers’ move­ment make use of this auton­o­my in order to inter­vene at the lev­el of the state?

In order to clar­i­fy what we mean by this prob­lem with two ele­ments, we can per­haps think of it in anal­o­gy with the New Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy. With the Sovi­et Union com­ing out of rev­o­lu­tion and civ­il war, the ques­tion for Lenin was one of rebuild­ing the econ­o­my and even rebuild­ing the class sub­ject of the rev­o­lu­tion, the work­ing class, dec­i­mat­ed by vio­lent con­flict and indus­tri­al col­lapse. The NEP was, as Lenin him­self con­ced­ed, a step back, a “strate­gi­cal retreat”;14 it was the con­scious use of cap­i­tal­ist tools – pri­vate own­er­ship of the means of pro­duc­tion – for social­ist pur­pos­es. Cap­i­tal­ism was to be let back in, was to be allowed to grow and, in grow­ing, strength­en, but in so doing it would also rebuild the pro­le­tari­at that had been “declassed” by the pre­vi­ous peri­od of eco­nom­ic defeat and polit­i­cal and mil­i­tary con­flict, and rebuild the pro­duc­tive forces – but this time, it would do so to defend the rev­o­lu­tion. The ques­tion was: “who will take the lead?” Reread­ing the Lenin of these years along­side Tron­ti, the sim­i­lar­i­ties in tone and form are extra­or­di­nary:

The whole ques­tion is who will take the lead. We must face this issue square­ly – who will come out on top? Either the cap­i­tal­ists suc­ceed in orga­niz­ing first – in which case they will dri­ve out the Com­mu­nists and that will be the end of it. Or the pro­le­tar­i­an state pow­er, with the sup­port of the peas­antry, will prove capa­ble of keep­ing a prop­er rein on those gen­tle­men, the cap­i­tal­ists, so as to direct cap­i­tal­ism along state chan­nels and to cre­ate a cap­i­tal­ism that will be sub­or­di­nate to the state and serve the state. (Lenin15)

[We must] elab­o­rate a medi­um term strat­e­gy, that is, to get to the point of being able to lead the process of adjust­ment of the state machine to the pro­duc­tive machine of cap­i­tal… it is a case of going so far as to con­scious­ly take hold of the process of mod­ern­iza­tion of the state machin­ery, to even man­age not the reforms in gen­er­al, as one says in the usu­al jar­gon, but in par­tic­u­lar that spe­cif­ic reform that is the cap­i­tal­ist reform of the state. (Tron­ti16)

We can speak, only half in jest, of a New Polit­i­cal Pol­i­cy, the use of the auton­o­my of the polit­i­cal, that emi­nent­ly bour­geois inven­tion brought in most recent­ly to save cap­i­tal from its cri­sis (in the ‘20s and ‘30s), in order to advance the work­ers’ move­ment. This is the prob­lem and the chal­lenge that Tron­ti tries to devel­op in this peri­od.

I do not want to make too much of this anal­o­gy,17 but I think it is use­ful when try­ing to make sense of the prob­lem and the task Tron­ti set him­self at this time. It was not, there­fore, to pro­vide a new, even if hereti­cal Marx­ist the­o­ry of the state – the lack of which was a wide­spread top­ic of dis­cus­sion at this time – that Tron­ti devel­oped the notion of the auton­o­my of the polit­i­cal. Instead, this notion served both to make sense of the spe­cif­ic prac­tice of the cap­i­tal­ist state after the Great Trans­for­ma­tion and was a call to a prag­mat­ic engage­ment with those tools in order to bend them to dif­fer­ent ends. The auton­o­my of the polit­i­cal is the sub­jec­tive stance of the bour­geois state, used to fur­ther its inter­ests; Tron­ti demand­ed that it should be appro­pri­at­ed by the work­ing class and bent to its inter­ests. So it is not a ques­tion of a new Marx­ist The­o­ry of the State, which had been lack­ing (although that too); but, cru­cial­ly, a Marx­ist Prac­tice of the State is what was called for. Only a thor­ough under­stand­ing of the machin­ery of state and of the polit­i­cal could enable one to effec­tive­ly oper­ate it – but a call for an “art of pol­i­tics, that is, of par­tic­u­lar tech­niques for the con­quest and con­ser­va­tion of pow­er,”18 was by no means a ‘“politi­cist-abstract” depar­ture from the more “polit­i­cal-con­junc­tur­al” focus of the mil­i­tant inter­ven­tions of the 1960s’ – as the par­al­lel with the NEP makes plain.19 In the final text in the book L’Autonomia del Politi­co, Tron­ti writes:

I am struck  (giv­en that we are speak­ing of the sub­jec­tiv­i­ty of the State, [i.e.] of cap­i­tal­ist inter­ests) that to some it has appeared that the prop­er­ly sub­jec­tive moment, in par­tic­u­lar, that of the work­ing class had dis­ap­peared from my dis­cus­sion. We must cer­tain­ly cor­rect this impres­sion: in the back­ground of this argu­ment, there is a care­ful­ly hid­den inter­locu­tor who pulls all the strings of the mat­ter… It is true: every move­ment in the rela­tion­ship between cap­i­tal and pow­er has a class rela­tion­ship between cap­i­tal and its antag­o­nist at its ori­gin …20

He goes on to argue with respect to the change in the state-form in the 1930s, much in the same way as does Anto­nio Negri21 – one of the most fierce adver­saries of the notion of the auton­o­my of the polit­i­cal – that one can­not under­stand the par­tic­u­lar solu­tion giv­en to the Great Crash with­out the rup­ture of 1917. That solu­tion – as Tron­ti argues – is that which leads to the auton­o­my of the polit­i­cal, of the state as agent called to com­pen­sate for the fail­ures of cap­i­tal, to try to sta­bi­lize, re-start, re-mod­el devel­op­ment, and redi­rect­ing invest­ment between more or less advanced indus­tri­al sec­tors – in short, to medi­ate, recom­pose, decide and to organ­ise the insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion of the class com­pro­mise that alone could save cap­i­tal­ism from itself and from its great antag­o­nist. For anal­o­gous rea­sons, we can say that Lenin – as well as Roo­sevelt (in the New Deal) and Keynes – could be said to have under­stood the his­tor­i­cal neces­si­ty for the auton­o­my of the polit­i­cal for the re-estab­lish­ment of order on a new foot­ing. It is here that we encounter the speci­fici­ty of the polit­i­cal: the polit­i­cal in its auton­o­my is a the­o­ry of the repro­duc­tion of order after cri­sis and a the­o­ry of the means to inter­vene in the process of the repro­duc­tion of order. Both of these oper­a­tions come under the head­ing of the “polit­i­cal,” with­out being reducible to it.22For this rea­son, Tron­ti priv­i­leges bour­geois the­o­rists (includ­ing social demo­c­ra­t­ic ones) who devel­oped a the­o­ry and prac­tice of the state to guide the auton­o­my of the polit­i­cal for the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal, in the same way that Lenin turned to “bour­geois spe­cial­ists” to run the machin­ery of state and large-scale indus­try; and it is for this same rea­son that Marx, who was faced with a lib­er­al state, ceas­es to be a the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal ref­er­ence point for think­ing the new polit­i­cal mech­a­nisms for the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal.23 The auton­o­my of the polit­i­cal in the bour­geois state is pre­cise­ly “in order to be able to inter­vene” in the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal­ism after its cri­sis, to re-estab­lish con­di­tions of devel­op­ment and exploita­tion. Tron­ti argued that the mech­a­nisms of its auton­o­my should instead be grasped by the orga­ni­za­tion of the work­ing class, “in order to be able to inter­vene” in the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal, after its cri­sis, to estab­lish con­di­tions for a “new idea of the state,” because “one can­not intro­duce new mass­es into an old state.”24 There is no easy way to do this, no easy del­e­ga­tion – whether to par­ty or to class for that mat­ter; each con­crete sit­u­a­tion calls for a con­crete analy­sis and the flex­i­bil­i­ty to act on the basis of the results of that analy­sis. The analy­sis always starts from the rela­tions of class forces that deter­mines the rel­a­tive strength of the con­tenders and, hence, cir­cum­scribes the lev­el of auton­o­my of action. An addi­tion­al lev­el of auton­o­my may be giv­en by the rela­tion to the state, to the polit­i­cal form of repro­duc­tion. The ques­tion is not whether or not the polit­i­cal oper­ates inde­pen­dent­ly of, autonomous­ly from mate­r­i­al con­di­tions – it does not; the char­ac­ter and qual­i­ty of that auton­o­my is gov­erned, cir­cum­scribed by very con­crete mate­r­i­al con­di­tions. For exam­ple, we have already indi­cat­ed how, though a “great trans­for­ma­tion,” the state became a renewed prin­ci­ple of order emerg­ing from a very con­crete cri­sis of repro­duc­tion. It did so by repro­duc­ing the class rela­tion through, first­ly, a class com­pro­mise between the two great con­tend­ing class­es the rel­a­tive strength of which would cir­cum­scribe the rel­a­tive lev­els of auton­o­my (in the New Deal / Fordist com­pro­mise) and, lat­er, through a care­ful deploy­ment of cri­sis, one that re-estab­lished the con­di­tions of growth through the inten­si­fi­ca­tion of rel­a­tive and absolute sur­plus val­ue (shift to float­ing exchange rates / end of dol­lar con­vert­ibil­i­ty, oil shocks, Volk­er shock, war on orga­nized labour, etc.). The ques­tion for Tron­ti was: what are the con­di­tions for achiev­ing a lev­el of auton­o­my, in prac­tice, that can be exer­cised in order to inter­vene with­in the repro­duc­tion of class rela­tions in a form more favor­able to the work­ing class. His answer was that it was nec­es­sary to under­stand and to appro­pri­ate the bour­geois mech­a­nisms of auton­o­my exper­i­ment­ed in the course of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry.25


To return, then, to our start­ing point. Why did Tron­ti feel the need to spend much of the 1970s, at the same time as that he was argu­ing for the appro­pri­a­tion – in the­o­ry and prac­tice – of the bour­geois auton­o­my of the Polit­i­cal, i.e. of the mech­a­nisms for the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal­ism, by the work­ers’ move­ment, car­ry­ing out an analy­sis of the polit­i­cal over the longue durée?

The hypoth­e­sis is that pre­cise­ly with the 1930s the return of the polit­i­cal, call it what you will, of the auton­o­my, of the pri­ma­cy, of the antic­i­pa­tion of the polit­i­cal, the open­ing – that is – of a new clas­si­cal phase of pol­i­tics is accom­pa­nied by a his­to­ry of the State on the grand scale [in grande], where the ori­gins of mod­ern bour­geois pow­er – uni­ty and con­cen­tra­tion, sov­er­eign­ty and vio­lence, the machine and the prince – are once again deci­sive. Nat­u­ral­ly there are great changes: new paths, ide­o­log­i­cal appa­ra­tus­es, grand solu­tions to mass orga­ni­za­tion, and the planned con­trol of eco­nom­ic con­tra­dic­tions. But in this phase I would like to under­line and hold to the com­mon ground of cor­re­spon­dences and echoes [richi­a­mi] between the two peri­ods, that of the ori­gins and that of the great cri­sis, between the long process of the tran­si­tion to cap­i­tal­ism and the epoch of the “great trans­for­ma­tion.” From here stems the almost oblig­a­tory choice of clas­si­cal polit­i­cal thought, in the six­teenth and sev­en­teenth cen­turies, as the ter­rain of study of liv­ing prob­lems and the encounter with the mod­el of polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion, as the inter­sec­tion of con­di­tions for the pas­sage to cap­i­tal­ism. At the same time, the set­ting to work, in prac­tice, of the rela­tion­ship between the eco­nom­ic cri­sis and the polit­i­cal exit from the cri­sis. I do not want to claim that every­thing holds togeth­er. But at a time when the “organ­ic” has become a bad word, to lay claim to the organ­ic nature of a course of study might be use­ful. Not in order to go against the cur­rent but to demon­strate that, in addi­tion to study­ing, one can also under­stand.26

What I par­tic­u­lar­ly want to high­light in this rich pas­sage is the clear state­ment that the polit­i­cal is not the state – it is not only the state, but even pre­cedes it and may – and some­times does – become con­cen­trat­ed in it.27 This process of the orig­i­nal com­ing togeth­er of the polit­i­cal in the state is what Tron­ti calls, in an almost iden­ti­cal for­mu­la­tion to that used by Louis Althuss­er at this time, an “orig­i­nary accu­mu­la­tion of the polit­i­cal.”28 This is the peri­od of the for­ma­tion of nation­al states that accom­pa­nied but is irre­ducible to the tran­si­tion to cap­i­tal­ism. So, while it is clear from the ori­gins of mod­ern pol­i­tics that pol­i­tics and the state were thrown togeth­er vio­lent­ly in an orig­i­nary accu­mu­la­tion of the polit­i­cal, in the course of the late nine­teenth and ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­turies we encounter the bour­geois fear of the break­ing apart of this uni­ty, when the state los­es the monop­oly on the polit­i­cal – either to the work­ing class and its orga­ni­za­tions (even the reformist ones such as trade unions), to large cor­po­ra­tions, to inter­na­tion­al bod­ies, or even to mar­kets.29 Carl Schmitt’s sen­si­tiv­i­ty to the grad­ual ero­sion of sov­er­eign author­i­ty and the ever-increas­ing threat of potes­tas indi­rec­ta makes him a priv­i­leged inter­locu­tor for Tron­ti, for while the dis­cus­sion of the polit­i­cal is one con­cern­ing the “com­plex path of the some­times con­tra­dic­to­ry rela­tion­ship between the polit­i­cal and the state,” Tron­ti is look­ing to this rela­tion­ship of the polit­i­cal to the state so as to take stock, “in Marx­ist and Lenin­ist terms, of the pos­si­bil­i­ty, the prob­a­bil­i­ty of an orig­i­nal way to pow­er.”30


So, have we answered our ques­tion? Why did Tron­ti ded­i­cate so much time in the 1970s to the study of the bour­geois state over the longue durée and con­cern him­self with the trans­for­ma­tions of the polit­i­cal over the same peri­od? It is because he con­tend­ed that it was only a detailed study of the bour­geois state since its ori­gins in the 16th cen­tu­ry, which marks the start of an epoch with­in which we con­tin­ue to oper­ate, and of the – fre­quent­ly con­tra­dic­to­ry – rela­tions between the polit­i­cal and the state over this peri­od, that could pro­vide the work­ers’ move­ment with suf­fi­cient­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed ana­lyt­i­cal and prac­ti­cal tools to begin to grasp the mech­a­nisms for the appro­pri­a­tion and the trans­for­ma­tion of the state. The 1930s sig­nalled a reprise of the polit­i­cal after a cen­tu­ry in which it had, for much of the time, been sub­or­di­nat­ed to the eco­nom­ic; this came togeth­er with a return of the “grande sto­ria” of the state – the con­junc­ture again of “polit­i­cal maneu­ver­ing of the class strug­gles” through the “polit­i­cal con­trol” over the social, and the “new polit­i­cal man­age­ment of a new eco­nom­ic cycle;”31 to study this reprise of the ori­gins of bour­geois pow­er, with all the nov­el­ties that inter­vened in the mean­time, could pro­vide the work­ing class with ana­lyt­i­cal and prac­ti­cal tools for the trans­for­ma­tion of the state, so that it could tru­ly “count polit­i­cal­ly.”

I do not believe that we are at the end of the his­to­ry of the state. The polit­i­cal, the new polit­i­cal sub­jec­tiv­i­ty strikes at it, trans­forms it, it does not smash it, it does not break it. As we run we will once again feel the bite of the state. We may as well grasp the reins and attempt to tame it.32

What then of today? Today, after the end of the long twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry of the Euro­pean work­ers’ move­ment, when once again the state is assailed by numer­ous, even more pow­er­ful potes­tas indi­rec­tae; when the sub­jec­tiv­i­ty of the state seems ever more close­ly aligned with that of inter­na­tion­al cap­i­tal, what can Tronti’s work on the auton­o­my of the polit­i­cal still teach us? It con­tin­ues to con­firm that this auton­o­my is indeed “a fact of cap­i­tal” and that with­out a work­ers’ move­ment capa­ble of appro­pri­at­ing those instru­ments of the state for itself, the polit­i­cal is forced to migrate to anoth­er ter­rain, one where it may be bet­ter served; rec­og­niz­ing, at the same time, that by so doing, it will have left an instru­ment of ines­timable pow­er for the sole use of those whose inter­ests are the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal and exploita­tion. What Tron­ti allows us to think is the dif­fer­ent and chang­ing artic­u­la­tions of the polit­i­cal, of how it can inter­sect with and be pulled from the state; how it can serve to re-estab­lish order – its func­tion of sta­bi­liza­tion with­in cap­i­tal­ist cri­sis – as well as the poten­tial for it to be appro­pri­at­ed to recon­fig­ure the repro­duc­tive mech­a­nisms for the pur­pos­es of oth­er sub­jec­tiv­i­ties and inter­ests, antag­o­nis­tic to those of cap­i­tal; but always, with­in cap­i­tal, it is the qual­i­ty of its auton­o­my that will deter­mine its func­tion and effec­tive­ness in inter­ven­ing in the process of repro­duc­tion. When that auton­o­my dimin­ish­es, or is too clear­ly sub­or­di­nat­ed to spe­cif­ic inter­ests, its effec­tive­ness is erod­ed – think of the Great Reces­sion, of the way that the state has been sub­or­di­nat­ed not to inter­na­tion­al cap­i­tal in gen­er­al, but to finance cap­i­tal, erod­ing both con­sump­tion as well as pro­duc­tive invest­ment, rerout­ing cheap mon­e­tary flows into share buy-backs stok­ing the stock mar­ket and real estate bub­bles while exac­er­bat­ing geopo­lit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic insta­bil­i­ties, while evac­u­at­ing the state of the means to serve fur­ther rounds of repro­duc­tion and sta­bi­liza­tion, leav­ing cap­i­tal open to its always threat­en­ing cri­sis and with­out its prin­ci­ple of order.

The posi­tion Tron­ti leaves us in is per­haps an unset­tling one; but he leaves us with a great lucid­i­ty about our con­di­tion and the ana­lyt­i­cal tools to begin to think pos­si­ble new artic­u­la­tions of the polit­i­cal and – per­haps – even­tu­al­ly to avail our­selves of them.

I would like to thank Gior­gio Cesar­ale and Alber­to Toscano for their care­ful read­ing and per­cep­tive com­ments to the intro­duc­tion and trans­la­tion. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, I have not been able to resolve all the issues that they have raised.


  1. “Polit­i­ca e Potere” (1978), in Sogget­ti, Crisi, Potere, ed. Mario Tron­ti et al.(Bologna: Cap­pel­li Edi­tore, 1980), 306-7. 

  2. Arguably this log­ic was also present in the response to the most recent cap­i­tal­ist cri­sis, and that rais­es impor­tant issues con­cern­ing the con­se­quences not only work­ers but for cap­i­tal of the mas­sive indebt­ed­ness of the state fol­low­ing its role in the recent round of sta­bi­liza­tion. We shall return to this in the con­clu­sion. 

  3. V. I. Lenin, “Kom­mu­nis­mus” in Col­lect­ed Works, vol. 31 (Moscow: Progress Pub­lish­ers Moscow, 1966), 166 

  4. Con­tain­ing a chap­ter of almost 140 pages on Hobbes and Cromwell by Tron­ti. 

  5. Aside from the infa­mous text of a sem­i­nar, Sull’Autonomia del Politi­co (1977, but which took place in ear­ly Decem­ber 1972 – the vol­ume also con­tains anoth­er sem­i­nar, “Le Due Tran­sizioni,” 1976), many of these texts can be found in Sogget­ti, Crisi, Potere (1980). 

  6. Take for instance the “Poscrit­to di Prob­le­mi” to the 1971 edi­tion of Operai e Cap­i­tale (Turin: Ein­au­di, 1971); and “Lo Sta­to del Cap­i­tal­is­mo Orga­niz­za­to” in Sta­to e Cap­i­tal­is­mo negli Anni Trenta (Rome: Edi­tori Riu­ni­tu, 1979). 

  7. This con­trasts with many oth­er read­ings of the 1930s, which see it as the end of the bour­geois (under­stood as lib­er­al) state; and it does so large­ly because Tron­ti views the his­to­ry of the bour­geois state as one that does not emerge as an almost nat­ur­al con­se­quence of the growth of cap­i­tal­ism – break­ing with pre­vi­ous modes of gov­er­nance under­stood as fet­ters on the growth of the pro­duc­tive forces (e.g. feu­dal or abso­lutist states) – but is in some sense the mid­wife of cap­i­tal­ism. That is to say, the 19th cen­tu­ry Man­ches­ter-mod­el of cap­i­tal­ism that formed the basis for much of Marx’s work, in which the state was sub­or­di­nat­ed to mar­kets and the polit­i­cal to the eco­nom­ic, this was in some sense an anom­aly in the his­to­ry of cap­i­tal­ism. In the 1930s, on the oth­er hand, Tron­ti argues that we have a return to “the ori­gins of mod­ern bour­geois pow­er – [where] uni­ty and con­cen­tra­tion, sov­er­eign­ty and vio­lence, the machine and the prince – are once again deci­sive” (“Polit­i­ca e Potere” [1978] in Sogget­ti, Crisi, Potere (1980), 295-6). This shall be dis­cussed more ful­ly in con­clu­sion to this brief intro­duc­tion. 

  8. For this rea­son, I will range across writ­ings through­out the 1970s, the years in which Tronti’s reflec­tions on the auton­o­my of the polit­i­cal were most intense. 

  9. For instance, the way the trade union strug­gles could serve as con­duits of infor­ma­tion for cap­i­tal to under­stand work­place con­di­tions; how those strug­gles could be used to mod­ern­ize the tech­nol­o­gy of pro­duc­tion, encour­ag­ing the intro­duc­tion of new tech­nolo­gies either to break work­er resis­tance or even as a tool for indus­tri­al com­pe­ti­tion, result­ing in firms unable to mod­ern­ize going bust and there­by enabling the spread of the most advanced tech­nolo­gies through­out a sec­tor; the way dis­in­vest­ment in sec­tors can free up labor for dif­fer­ent indus­tri­al strate­gies (e.g. the attack on min­ers in the UK in the 1980s, dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion across many advanced economies, etc.). For a use­ful dis­cus­sion of the eco­nom­ic con­text, see Siro Lom­bar­di­ni, “Crisi Eco­nom­i­ca e Pro­ces­si di Ricon­ver­sione,” 31-41, and the chap­ter by Ser­gio Gar­avi­ni on the role of trade unions in the restruc­tur­ing, 240-46, in Ricon­ver­sione e Con­trol­lo Demo­c­ra­ti­co, ed. Anto­nio Mereu (Bari: De Dona­to, 1977).  

  10. This for­mu­la­tion is, per­haps, too instru­men­tal­ist; it is quite clear that, for Tron­ti, nei­ther the state nor cap­i­tal are sin­gu­lar, homo­ge­neous ele­ments that can be unprob­lem­at­i­cal­ly set to work for spe­cif­ic ends.  

  11. See, for instance, Mario Tron­ti, Sull’Autonomia del Politi­co (Milan, Fel­trinel­li, 1977), 34-5. How­ev­er, as Tron­ti makes clear in “Le Due Tran­sizioni”  (1976), in Sogget­ti, Crisi, Potere, he thinks through extremes: “I very much believe, more­over, in inquiry that goes in phas­es, even in short epochs, in which each time one places the accent vio­lent­ly on one ele­ment that then forces you to bend the ques­tion the oth­er way, because I do not believe it is pos­si­ble to recom­pose a sys­tem­at­ic pic­ture from the the­o­ret­i­cal stand­point giv­en the type of sit­u­a­tion we have before us (even from the class per­spec­tive), which is an era of move­ment in an epoch of tran­si­tion.” In a recent col­lec­tion of arti­cles, Tron­ti has returned to this idea in a more apo­d­ic­tic for­mu­la­tion: “It is well known: I like to think from extremes. To think from extremes is the only way to pro­duce the­o­ret­i­cal dis­cov­er­ies. Strong thought in a hard real­i­ty. The plane of action is quite anoth­er thing. The error is in con­se­quence to act from extremes,” Mario Tron­ti, “Polit­i­ca e Cul­tura,” in Non si può Accettare, ed. P. Ser­ra (Rome: Ediesse, 2009), 64. 

  12. Mario Tron­ti, “Le Due Soci­età Politiche” (1977), in Sogget­ti, Crisi, Potere, 287. The con­trast Tron­ti makes between “par­tic­i­pat­ing” and “count­ing” here, is an inter­est­ing one that would deserve more exten­sive treat­ment. The cru­cial point being – how­ev­er – that par­tic­i­pa­tion in polit­i­cal life (through being able to vote, for instance) is not itself a guar­an­tee of being able to influ­ence polit­i­cal deci­sion-mak­ing. What Tron­ti is inter­est­ed in, is find­ing ways to change the state, renew the state in such a way that it is open to its basis in soci­ety. If one takes lib­er­al democ­ra­cy, there is a chasm between the “moment of demo­c­ra­t­ic artic­u­la­tion at the base and the moment of deci­sion at the top”; it is this chasm, or “miss­ing links” that needs to be over­come in a “pro­pos­al for a new polit­i­cal sys­tem” (ibid.). 

  13. Mario Tron­ti, “Polit­i­ca e Potere” (1978), in Sogget­ti, Crisi, Potere, 310. 

  14. V. I. Lenin, The New Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy and the Tasks of the Polit­i­cal Edu­ca­tion Depart­ments,” in Col­lect­ed Works, vol. 33 (Moscow: Progress Pub­lish­ers, 1973), 66. 

  15. Ibid. 

  16. L’Autonomia del Politi­co: Relazione Intro­dut­ti­va” (1972) in Mario Tron­ti, L’Autonomia del Poltiti­co (Milan, Fel­trinel­li, 1977, 19. 

  17. Although Tron­ti in many ways under­stood what he was doing in these terms. As he writes in 1978: “It is prob­a­ble that Ital­ian Marx­ism will be led by cir­cum­stances to assume an ardu­ous his­toric task, that of inter­na­tion­al trail­blaz­er [bat­tistra­da], more or less close to the mean­ing of Lenin­ism in the 1920s,” Mario Tron­ti in Sogget­ti, Crisi, Potere, 294. 

  18. “L’Autonomia del Politi­co: Relazione Intro­dut­ti­va” in Mario Tron­ti, L’Autonomia del Politi­co (Milan: Fel­trinel­li, 1977), 17. 

  19. Sara Far­ris, “Althuss­er and Tron­ti: the Pri­ma­cy of Pol­i­tics Ver­sus the Auton­o­my of the Polit­i­cal” in Encoun­ter­ing Althuss­er, ed. Kat­ja Diefen­bach et al. (Lon­don: Blooms­bury, 2013), 192. Much of my dis­cus­sion of the auton­o­my of the polit­i­cal is writ­ten in crit­i­cal (but appre­cia­tive) rela­tion to the inter­pre­ta­tion of Tron­ti pro­vid­ed by Far­ris, which I take to clear­ly and thought­ful­ly express a wide­spread under­stand­ing of this peri­od of Tronti’s oeu­vre – one that I take to be flawed. 

  20. Mario Tron­ti, “Le Due Tran­sizioni” (1976), in Sogget­ti, Crisi, Potere, 81, 82-3. 

  21. Anto­nio Negri, “Keynes and the Cap­i­tal­ist The­o­ry of the State” in Labor of Diony­sus (Min­neapo­lis: Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 1994). 

  22. “What the State can­not do, pol­i­tics or rather the polit­i­cal must do; it finds itself in the more cor­rect sit­u­a­tion to medi­ate its choice of actions with the state of its time and its peo­ple,” Mario Tron­ti, Hegel Politi­co (Rome: Isti­tu­to dell’Enciclopedia Ital­iana, 1975), 42. 

  23. This should not be seen in any way as a renounc­ing of Marx – quite the oppo­site; but it is sim­ply to acknowl­edge that “between the eco­nom­ic and the polit­i­cal there has not always exist­ed the same rela­tion but there is a rela­tion that changes,” Mario Tron­ti, “Crit­i­ca del­la Polit­i­ca, Oggi” (1977), in Sogget­ti, Crisi, Potere, 276. 

  24. Mario Tron­ti, “Le Due Soci­età Politiche” (1977), in Sogget­ti, Crisi Potere, 288. 

  25. The answer that Tron­ti pro­vides is not uni­ver­sal­iz­able. There were spe­cif­ic con­di­tions in Italy that made this solu­tion pecu­liar­ly appro­pri­ate to con­di­tions in the penin­su­la at the time: 1) a weak cen­tral state lack­ing an effec­tive, mod­ern rul­ing class; 2) a pow­er­ful work­ers’ move­ment with deep routes across the nation­al ter­ri­to­ry. The ter­rain of the polit­i­cal there­fore pos­sessed a ready-made medi­a­tor that could use its lev­el of auton­o­my to appro­pri­ate the levers of social repro­duc­tion: “Pol­i­tics is not only the state but also the par­ty; and not only the par­ty but the move­ment; and not only the move­ment … We must take up this need for pol­i­tics that ris­es from the social,” Mario Tron­ti, “Polit­i­ca e Potere” (1978), in Sogget­ti, Crisi, Potere, 309). 

  26. Ibid., 296. 

  27. Which is why any sim­ple reduc­tion of the auton­o­my of the polit­i­cal to the auton­o­my (rel­a­tive or oth­er­wise) of the state, is a mis­take. The influ­ence of Carl Schmitt is evi­dent here: “The con­cept of the state pre­sup­pos­es that of the polit­i­cal,” Carl Schmitt, The Con­cept of the Polit­i­cal (Chica­go: Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press, 2007), 19. 

  28. Mario Tron­ti, “Polit­i­ca e Potere” (1978), in Sogget­ti, Crisi, Potere, 306. A year before, in 1977, Althuss­er used the term “prim­i­tive polit­i­cal accu­mu­la­tion” but explic­it­ly relates it to Marx’s notion of “orig­i­nal” accu­mu­la­tion – often trans­lat­ed as “prim­i­tive” accu­mu­la­tion, Louis Althuss­er, “The Soli­tude of Machi­avel­li” in Machi­avel­li and Us (Lon­don: Ver­so Books, 2011), 125. It is high­ly unlike­ly that Tron­ti knew that Althuss­er had used this expres­sion the year before he did, since Althuss­er did so in a lec­ture at the Asso­ci­a­tion Franḉais de Sci­ence Poli­tique in Paris in 1977. It is, if any­thing, a sign (a fur­ther sign?) that in many ways Althusser’s reflec­tions and those of Tron­ti, at this time, were revolv­ing around sim­i­lar themes and prob­lems and, arguably, reach­ing anal­o­gous con­clu­sions. See Sarah Far­ris, “Althuss­er and Tron­ti: the Pri­ma­cy of Pol­i­tics Ver­sus the Auton­o­my of the Polit­i­cal,” for a some­what dif­fer­ent account from my own, admit­ted­ly less thor­ough­ly devel­oped one – at least as con­cerns Althuss­er). 

  29. We can think again of the work of Carl Schmitt, who at var­i­ous moments express­es a fear of all of these forms of potes­tas indi­rec­tae. We also need to note the cen­tral role of eco­nom­ic and geopo­lit­i­cal crises that played a sub­stan­tial role in the loss of the pow­er states: the World Wars, rev­o­lu­tions, the Great Crash, mass pol­i­tics; to which we can add the for­ma­tion of the large giant Ger­man Konz­ern, US cor­po­ra­tions, inter­na­tion­al bod­ies from the treaties of Ver­sailles, Yal­ta, to the Bret­ton Woods insti­tu­tions, and so on. The twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry saw both the enor­mous expan­sion of polit­i­cal pow­er but also its embod­i­ment in very dif­fer­ent insti­tu­tion­al – and non – forms. 

  30. Mario Tron­ti, “Polit­i­ca e Potere” (1978) in Sogget­ti, Crisi, Potere, 307. 

  31. Ibid., 295. 

  32. Ibid., 312. 

Author of the article

is a member of the editorial board of the journal Historical Materialism and lectures at Queen Mary University of London.