The Critique of Politics and “Unequal Right” (1978)

Leonardo Cremonini, I tori scuoiati (1952).

Editorial Introduction: This essay is Rossana Rossanda’s response to Althusser’s “Marxism as a Finite Theory,” the expanded interview which served as the basis for the Discutere lo stato collection. While demanding, it provides a useful summary of the debates among Italian socialists and communists on the status of the state, democracy, and mass organization in Marxist theory and strategy, which surrounded the Italian Communist Party’s (PCI) participation in the Historic Compromise, the 1976 electoral alliance with the Christian Democrats. This entrance into the state of course ran aground, for many reasons; Rossanda effectively recounts some of the most contradictory and difficult ones. But she also offers her own interpretation of the “blind spots” of Marxism, through a distinctive reading of the relation between the critique of political economy and critique of politics in Marx. The question of “unequal right,” and thus of force, violence, and class dictatorship, requires that we alter received categories for thinking revolutionary transitions, political struggle, and social power.


1. This past March in Venice, when we asked Louis Althusser to resume the discourse he opened, with some scandal, on the absence of a theory of the state in Marx, we did not only have in mind a crux that came to the foreground at the conference on “Power and Opposition in Post-Revolutionary Societies.” Such societies, it was commonly said, revealed their narrowness more explicitly (or at least more apparently) on questions of freedom, therefore of the state; and this is why they did not remain solely questions of history, but were also questions of theory.

But it was not only this that advanced, as much as the new dimension that the discussion on the state was coming to assume in the short span between 1977 and 1978 in Italy. This theme had long been chiefly a terrain of original research among Gramscian intellectuals, communist and not (above all during the 1970s, i.e., when the crisis of the societies of the East was made apparent, and when of the problem of the Italian revolution returned to the agenda). In 1976, this theme sharply took on a new contemporaneity. On the horizon was the possibility of a government of the left; what idea of the state would it, and above all the PCI, have brought there, beyond the general “democratic” choices and what would be the response to the demands for innovation that were impetuously advanced precisely in the sphere of the “political” during the decade?

Scholars of the socialist faction, in the vein of Norberto Bobbio and Giuliano Amato, had fired the opening shots, and alongside them were historians and philosophers of a more recent conversion, like Lucio Colletti and Massimo Salvadori, encouraging the Communist Party to take to heart their declarations of pluralism with a renunciation of the Gramscian concept of hegemony; a variant – it was written – of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and thus its reluctant form of continuity.

If, in 1976, the communist response was a specific re-elaboration of the themes which came to fruition during the decade, whose more organic political mooring could be found in Pietro Ingrao’s “Introduction” to his text Masses and Power, just a few months away – in 1977 and through the Aldo Moro case in 1978 – the reflection was partially postponed. Until then it was time to construct, emphasizing the specificity of the “Italian case,” the hypothesis of a transitional state, which avoided both the formalism of the classical bourgeois tradition (and in this operation, in theoretical terms trying to modify the meaning of terms like “pluralism” and “Historic Compromise,” which the practice of the PCI assumed in a permanent oscillation between liberal-bourgeois or integralist) and – through a different dialectic and connection between “institutions” and “movements” – the model of a centralized and integrated state, whose ultimate form would be the resurgent spirit of “popular democracy.” To do this, communist thought picked up from Gramsci – partially, but only partially allowing for the “autonomy of the political” – the emphasis placed on the quality and articulation of the modern political sphere; irreducible to the slogan “state = executive committee for the affairs of the bourgeoisie,” it now appeared eminently contradictory ground, permeable to the presence, not merely quantitative, of the masses in their historical organizations and in new forms of direct association; and thus the site of encounter, mutation, renewal.

Over the course of 1977 the axis of this research changed. The Communist Party had entered into the sphere of “state power” within the considerable limits of the emergency coalition; and it found itself confronted on the one hand with the rigidity of the economic-political bloc in the crisis which made impracticable the only means of attack it had available, that of the line of “reform”; and on the other – in the face of shared responsibility for the recessive measures that the PCI found itself assuming – with the first phenomena of the loosening of its militant base and opinion. Its historical legitimation as the reference point of all the oppressed and exploited (as well as of those who polemicized with “the revisionists”) was now being contested. And this rapidly assumed dimensions and forms that were unpredictable and perverse: from the violent critique of politics to the armed party and terrorism on the one hand, to the nonviolent critique of politics, up to the recall of delegates, the refusal of membership, or new forms of apathy on the other. And thus it is on the sphere of the political, what seemed the most pliable and radically invested in the unifying culture of the foundation of the left, that the Communist Party has registered a crash and an insurmountability; the state, in its first attainment of the summit, reveals itself as a site, certainly extremely articulated, as the terrain of the complex formation of political wills (on which Ingrao above all had insisted) which yet gravitate around an obscure kernel, which means that the new contradictions, instead of liberating a dialectic and new equilibriums (as was said once: “more advanced terrain”), become principles of involution and sclerosis. The state does not dialecticize itself, it gets sick. To be perversely exact, its sickness becomes its political and social processes: a way of being, of “governing,”

What remains of this seemingly certain premise, when all is said and done: starting in the 1930s, the transformation of the state into the site of “planning,” or at least the principle of a not purely functional regulation of the political; its expansion, the extension in terrains which traditionally do not belong to it, through which “stateness” [statalità] penetrates civil society, sailing along the coast of the economic sphere and at times directly occupying it, always conditioning it through monetary maneuvers; the possibility, then, for the state to govern, perhaps in the form of “passive revolution,” class conflict? If it is true that class is not only the number of workers, but the workers plus their culture, history, and political organization, as it happens that when this assumes the scope and position of “government,” and treats enemies as allies, encounters – to use De Giovanni’s efficacious expression – “a wall,” which comes not only from the obvious contrast between this or that party, Christian Democracy (DC) first of all, but a more profound principle of resistance, one that is incomprehensible through a “division of powers”? In short it encounters “power,” no longer like it was in the past, but even less responsive to a univocal principle, also if it is expressed through more diffuse, complex, and ephemeral forms. The presence of the masses in the state – to use the optimistic expression used at the time by the PCI – runs up against this frontier.

So, while on the immediately political terrain the Communist Party invested itself in the first difficulty, its scholars unsurprisingly reversed the direction of their thinking. They ceased trying to explain that the state is no longer a monolith, instead trying to understand why, since it is not a whole, it still remains unmovable by an effective dialectic of class, closed off to a principle, if not of extinction, of transformation. This is why, De Giovanni writes again, it is necessary to turn from Weber to Marx. Hence the new interest in Foucault, who alone has apparently proceeded in parallel with Gramscian research; if, in this way, the extreme articulation of the “political” can be used to demonstrate the ambivalence and penetrability, in Foucault the extreme diffusiveness of power (as far as encompassing knowledge and its modes of education) tends to restrict every principle of mutation, stirring up an always more extended state. Hence also the return to a reflection on the nexus between state-form and form of production, which refers the crisis-rigidity of the state to the crisis-rigidity of productive relations. Or, in reverse, among the adherents to the autonomy of the political, the proposal of an integral use of the state and only of it, the sole site of “politics” and therefore of possible transformations by a totally political agent (justifying in various modes the separateness of the superstructure from the base: with the constriction of the same, with the depth and historicity of modern political “forms,” with the characteristics of late capitalism – entirely different hypotheses, but all arriving at the same result, which we could say, always to simplify, with the reverse intellectual process, from Marx to Weber).

In a more problematic fashion, another line, that of Luporini, turns to Marx’s texts in order to reconsider the basis of the political, in fact the connection between the political and the capitalist mode of production, and, as we will see, paradoxically does not find it. In any event, De Giovanni’s essay on “Intellectuals and Power,” 1 Vacca’s “Old and New in the Formation of Socialist Consciousness: Socialism Beyond the Plan and the Market,” 2 Luporini’s “Critique of the Political and Critique of Political Economy in Marx” 3 are not randomly contiguous and have as a backdrop a less dramatic but contentious prior conference on Gramsci and above all Paggi’s work.

So Althusser’s intervention in Venice is not random, after many years of separation from Italian research: it is in total autonomy, in his own way and in parallel, that he intervened in our conference on “Power and Opposition in Post-revolutionary Societies” raising the point that troubles Italians, in terms of the presence or absence of a theory of the state in Marx, and gets involved in the Italian discussion, in March 1978, at the opening of the debate in Il Manifesto. Behind the intellectuals of the PCI is the impact of the first disappointing experience in government, behind Althusser the crisis of the unity of the left in France. The dialogue from which this debate emerged took place between March 12 and March 19, 1978, when what remained of the hope for a government of the left was consumed between two rounds of voting; and in the most disastrous form, a self-inflicted and irreversible defeat.

The questions, parenthetical for too long, on the societies of the East – i.e., on the anchoring of the revolutionary workers’ movement in the form of the Stalinist state – therefore covered up the real problem in 1977 – namely what differentiates the European communists from social democracy on the idea of the state. On this topic the communists went on contending the repetition of polemical modules intervening between the Second and Third Internationals; but today there is emerging, from the crucible, the ambiguous and uncertain common terrain, if it is true that the less suspect of the communist parties seemed to lose autonomy at the level of the state, as was the case with the large Northern workers’ formations. As though the forms in which they were thought were capable of entirely and creatively expressing the antagonistic social subjectivity – the long phases of construction of the class in political consciousness – shipwrecked soon after. Because after, at the moment of power, as much as, as Althusser observes, the workers’ movement borrows the form of the state that it combats, to structure itself in its likeness (the principle of representativeness, of delegation, an idea of law and division of powers), seems to become the trap that does not allow it to to think another form of politics; whereby the communist parties enter into the bourgeois state to expand its elasticity, but confirm its univocity. If this is so, the question of the origin of social democracy (just as, conversely, the Stalinist state) thus today refers directly to the communist parties; it is by no means set aside; no historical sediment makes them immune from it. It is not a surprise that in the more rich and sensitive party, the Italian one, in these two years, in some way have glimpsed the features of another form of crisis of the “Third Way” (the integralist and liberal [free-market] temptation) and have dearly paid the price for it.

It seems to me that the obliqueness with which this problem is taken up in the debate involves the question of the Keynesian state and its full-blown limits. The welfare state, so reviled today, is in fact nothing other than its driving, uncontrolled form. But what has the left envisioned if not precisely a model of the Keynesian state, regulator of conflicts, beyond, further, encircling and limiting the “natural” mechanism of the form of production? The entirety of modern social democracy traverses this path and, in this attempt to use it, the communist parties retrace an itinerary that is not so different. Only it paradoxically comes too late; this kind of state is now revealed to be illusory under the profile of the domain of social processes which it would be called upon to regulate; strongly under that of the assimilation to it of political categories, whether it is of the dominant class or of those already subaltern.

The wave of polemics from the right that assign the “programmer state” [stato programmatore] to the best socialist thought, therefore, are not pure pretext: the right finds a failure and fears the most poisoned developments – the permanent tendency to authoritarianism, on the one hand, to disintegration on the other, and therefore proposes to give order to the political scene again through a full integration of the formal conflictuality of the law. In short, it proposes a reset, a drawing back in order to guarantee not only the social subjects (here encountering the sympathy of all those who, time after time, are or are afraid of being excluded), but the whole political framework. But the right negotiates in retreat, because all of a sudden it cancels not so much the perverse effects of the statist illusion of the 1930s, but the social reasons for its emergence, and that means the absolutely changed relationship between the subjectivity of the dominant and the dominated, the impossibility of the bourgeois bloc to conserve if not through a “contract,” worth precipitating in a regressive, authoritarian crisis, otherwise leaving space for a revolutionary insurgency. This, I believe, is the experience accrued from the outcomes of the Second World War and in the apparent calm that followed: in these thirty years, in reality, mass processes became disruptive, and no one – neither capital nor labor nor the marginalized – any longer resembles the classical figure from which the party came.

For this reason the socialist polemic was, in its best figures, the Bobbios and the Amatos, altogether effective, but to the side of the debate. Until the Moro case. With this all the processes accelerated. Whatever the true nature and the purpose of terrorism was in Italy, we can be sure that it managed to precipitate the limits, theoretical and political, of the communists on the state terrain. It is clear since the movement of ‘77, when the organized workers’ movement was not only unable to respond to the onset of new youth unemployment, defusing it through a real reinstatement of its specific degree of subversive culture, but absurdly rejected these youth as outside of itself, placing itself in the exact position of weakness and separateness that the crisis, dividing it the traditional social bloc, suggests. It is in this phase, in fact, that the left endorsed the leggi speciali, of modest solidity, but with disruptive symbolic value: this broke the unwritten “pact” that the workers’ parties had hitherto sealed with the oppressed and excluded of every kind.

With Moro’s kidnapping, the left, and notably the PCI, took another step forward, thereby assuming the most complete form, as its own value, of that state which, up to that point, it had related to conditionally (presenting itself as guarantor of constitutional principles, but not of the political system concretely constituted in the postwar period inside, outside, and alongside the Constitution, the Christian-Democratic state). As soon as the Communist Party made this step, the Socialist Party rediscovered an identity dissociating itself from it. And here also we come across, on closer examination, theoretical and political themes. This fear of the “integrated,” “consensual” state, which came from the Socialist Party in 1976 in a theoretical analysis of the “Historic Compromise” which appeared to cut itself off from any real function, was confirmed in the type of agreement sealed between the DC and the PCI in the Moro case; then together, worn-out solidarity and already fragile alliances – those which had until then made up the unity, more apparent than real, of the left – fell through. Ridiculed once more in April for its inability to find a place for itself, 4 the Socialist Party suddenly identified precisely where the discussion of 1976 had brought it: only the debate between Giuliano Amato and Pietro Ingrao dismissed in Craxi’s Proudhonian pamphlet, and the the poisonous responses of Unità.

The interventions that came to be collected around Althusser’s text thus dealt with this “political” period. They were about a theoretical crisis, testifying in a still reticent and obscure way to what was in fact an already visible political crisis. This was glimpsed in the debate of 1977 and now, with this discussion provisionally closed, it is overwhelmed by it. No one “researches” in the same way in autumn of 1978 as in the autumn of 1977: in France the defeat of the left is confirmed, in Italy it is feared. The process here is more tormentful, going through the contracts, coming to the least flashy but meaningful forms of reversal of the tendencies of the spring elections. We will see then how the first five years of the 1970s were perhaps the last in which the old-new left believed it was riding the history it was advancing, and that itself had matured, in with the political categories of the past; how the three years between 1976 and 1979 saw the limit of it, would have arrived – Althusser would say – at the “blind spot”; from 1979 its very existence will begin to be linked (except to survive on the defensive) to the overcoming of the politico-juridical horizon in which the state – and therefore the party and power – was thought – like the overcoming of the categories of industrialism through which it had until then comprehended development.

2. This said, I would like to briefly weigh in on the question with which Althusser opened our debate, Marxism as a “finite” theory, and the two “blind spots” that derive from it: the existence or inexistence of a theory of the state in Marx, and the gray area which today seems to come from the idea of right and the state (deterioration of inherited categories, the mere “interstitial” presence of other materials) in the mass movement today.

Regarding the “finitude” of Marxism, it cannot be said that everyone in this debate has understood each other. One part of the interventions has taken “finitude” as “end” (and “the crisis of Marxism” as “death throes of Marxism”). Marxism would be “finite” because capitalism is finite, or at least is so different from that of the time of Marx that it cannot be read through the theoretical keys of Marx. This is, in other terms, the position of Bobbio and Zolo, and it reduces to pure philology the question of whether there is a theory of the state in Marx or not; even if it was regarding a past society. It would be turned over to historians, and lacks a political valence.

Another part of the interventions, which reflect the growing empirical temptation of the left, mean by the “finitude” of Marxism its eminently territorial limit. “Finite” as it reflects only the economic, which would also itself be “finite,” circumscribed to that specific contradiction which is the relations of production, now encircled and reduced in prominence by the extension of the political sphere on the one hand, with its own contradictions, and on the other the private sphere, with its own dialectic. The proletariat has only ever expressed “one” contradiction, albeit a relevant one; and today, diminished in specific prominence in society, less able to to connect to its contradictions, thrusts, needs, oppressions, and liberations of other natures. Converging with this reading, from opposite sides, are the variants of the feminist critique of politics and the theses, of the right or the left, relating to the autonomy of the political.

A third interpretation, which is the one that interests me, instead reads “finitude” neither as a temporal nor territorial limit, but rather as a theoretical limit of Marxism, which leads into two “blind spots.” The first could be represented by the following series of questions: what is the relation, in the mature Marx, between the theory of capital (critique of political economy) and the theory of the state (critique of politics)? Can the second be derived from the first? Did Marx do this? If yes, did he supply the material for a theory of the state in the capitalist phase and conversely, “through a screen” [in retino], glimpses of setting the idea of “non-bourgeois” law on its feet; which obliges us also to reflect on why he did not give “autonomy” to the treatment of the first part of this proposition. If he did not however establish a theoretical nexus between the theory of capital and the theory of politics, if indeed – as Luporini thinks – he divided them, this means that something in Marx not only subordinates the theory of the state, but separates it from the relations of production, should it be there. In this case, however, he made the idea of revolution separate too, which also remains without theoretical foundation.

The question is not philological. Every time that the “revolution” of “capital” spins off in Marx – and in an opposite way both the Second and Third internationals did this (no less than Gramsci, “The Revolution Against Capital” is for him October) – legitimating evolutionism and subjectivism (spontaneist or Jacobin), precisely rendering the political autonomous. The state form and the form of production come from different spheres. At this point gradualist reformism gets out fairly well: it accepts the separation as well as it sends it to the bourgeois “self-consciousness” of production and the state, limiting itself to hoping to correct the most perverse effects; while the revolutionary tendency perpetually debates the hypotheses of two acts: first we change the form of production (the famous material base) and then the political sphere; first we change the political sphere, then comes the form of production (the masses that enter into the state, rebus sic stantibus in the productive process). The limit point of the 20th congress and limit point of Eurocommunism.

The question of the second “blind spot” is even less philological. It affects us, and it is the possibility of deducing from the critique of the capitalist mode of production and its state another form of production and another idea, not only generically of politics, but of the transitional state, and behind it of law. The paradox we are experiencing consists in the fact that today the critique of capitalism and the state is produced in real social conflicts, advances through real political subjects, material practices (from the organization of labor in the factory, or the attempts to rebuild the cycle like in Castellanza, or feminism): here we already move in the zone of the “screen,” beyond the categories inherited and taken from the traditional workers’ movement, in the profile of another which is expressed as a need and seen in clips of experience. Our blind spot is really located here: as if we were at the farthest limits of a culture and already outside of it, yet lacking not only the elements of prefiguration, which now would not even be the object of a “cook-shop of the future,” but also the theoretical articulation of a practice already underway, already more than intuited, lived.

Therefore it so happens that every time this experience appears in its radicality, it is accused of “movementism,” often withdrawing in it and not knowing or being able to go beyond; and yet it means little to settle things in this way. The blind spot is always there as a wider margin, a rift that is always deepened, expanded, of the state-form and of law; it simultaneously puts into crisis the dominant class and the political “forms” that the workers’ movement has borrowed from it, like the traditional form of the party; it targets this form when the workers’ party, “entering into the state,” suffers from ideology, contradicting its own original values, among these the critique of bourgeois right.

The positivity of Althusser’s “finitude”, which caused him to declare in Venice, “Finally Marxism is in crisis,” is, I believe, in this awareness: we are able to see it now, the “blind spot,” the dark zone. We know what it is. Shedding light on it is difficult but it is, perhaps, the question on the order of the day for this phase of the class struggle, and not only in Italy.

3. So is there or is there not a theory of the state in Marx? In Venice Althusser said something more and something less: there is not a Marxist theory of the state, meaning by “Marxism” the whole of the theory of the workers’ movement, for Marx and after Marx. In the intervention that opens this debate, he adds and clarifies that this theory is missing and therefore borrowed from the ideology of the dominant class. In Venice he added another point: it is missing because it cannot be deduced from an economistic reading of capital, or, more exactly, from a reading of capital as a mere theory of surplus value.

In his essay in Critica marxista Luporini reaches the same conclusion and in a more radical form. The theory of surplus value renders impossible a theoretical foundation of the state, because it tells us that capitalism is the first and only form of production that does not need “an organized extra-economic force… to maintain and reproduce unequal social and economic relations that have been established in it.” 5 It does not need it because the economic mechanism contains in itself, hidden, the principle of compulsion, and those who are subjected introject [introiettare] it. Luporini relies on a long citation from Marx, chapter 28 of volume one of Capital (but traces of it can be found elsewhere):

It is not enough that the conditions of labour are concentrated at one pole of society in the shape of capital, while at the other pole are grouped masses of men who have nothing to sell but their labour-power. Nor is it enough that they are compelled to sell themselves voluntarily. The advance of capitalist production develops a working class which by education, tradition and habit looks upon the requirements of that mode of production as self-evident natural laws. The organization of the capitalist process of production, once it is fully developed, breaks down all resistance. The constant generation of a relative surplus population keeps the law of the supply and demand of labour, and therefore wages, within narrow limits which correspond to capital’s valorization requirements. The silent compulsion of economic relations sets the seal on the domination of the capitalist over the worker. Direct extra-economic force is still of course used, but only in exceptional cases. In the ordinary run of things, the worker can be left to the “natural laws of production,” i.e. it is possible to rely on his dependence on capital, which springs from the conditions of production themselves, and is guaranteed in perpetuity by them. 6

Things were otherwise before, when, “at its rise,” the bourgeoisie needed a state to “regulate wages,” lengthen the working day, etc. From this passage Luporini deduces that “[e]very possible theoretical passage to the state in relation to the fundamental relations of the capitalist mode of production is blocked. It functions and must function on its own.”

Is this convincing? I do not think so. It is immediately apparent that things did not happen like this: Luporini himself asks, shortly after, how it is that, as never before, the state is so strong under capitalism. And conversely, it is not true that the working class recognized as “obvious” the exigencies of the this mode of production, gave up all resistance, while the silent compulsion of economic relations affixed its seal on the capitalist domination of the worker. What happened was the opposite: the workers’ movement grew and with its organization provoked the forced organization of the state (various limitations on the right to strike, wages, the working day in times of confrontation, “legalization” of workers’ victories in the periods of passive revolution). Paradoxically this was in fact Marx’s prediction in the passages immediately after the one I just cited. In the chapter on so-called primitive accumulation he makes a quick excursus on the necessary interventions of the state in the formation of relations between social figures of early capitalism, but concludes, in the “Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation,” where he predicts the expropriation of the individual capitalist by large groups:

Along with the constant decrease in the number of capitalist magnates, who usurp and monopolize all the advantages of this process of transformation, the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation grows; but with this there also grows the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production. 7

Thus behind the dual impact of monopolistic centralization and the socialization of labor, “[t]his integument is burst asunder…capitalist production begets…its own negation. It is the negation of negation.”

The two affirmations, integration-rebellion, should therefore be read together as coexisting tendencies in Marx, but the second is the historical tendency. It generates a rupture on the political terrain, which then caused him to predict the eminently extra-economic, political, resolution of the process, which is the armed struggle. Coercive state and revolutionary movement are “inside” the movement of the process of capitalist reproduction and its development, “with the inexorability of a law of Nature.”

However, because they are presented – not, I think, as Luporini says, one theoretically consistent, the other only as empirical observation, but surely “in parallel” – as both intrinsic and opposed tendencies? At the end of volume 3 of Capital, before tackling the still-incomplete chapter on classes, Marx briefly summarizes what distinguishes capitalism from every preceding mode of production. There are two characteristics: the first is that of producing only commodities and making workers into commodities (“This means, first of all, that the worker himself appears only as a seller of commodities, and hence as a free wage-Iabourer – i.e., labour generally appears as wage-labour” 8 ); the second is the site of the formation of surplus value. The two characteristics are connected, they are not the same thing. As commodity the worker is the object of alienation, destroyed as a person, made fungible to the productive process as a “living accessory of this machinery,” 9 and like it, disposable, eliminable. As creator of surplus value, he is exploited: subjected to an unequal contract. On the first point he can only find a political defense, as the principle which must oppose capital in toto and destroy it; on the second point he finds a contractual defense. On the first point he is not called upon to introject unequal right; on the second point he can introject unequal, bourgeois right. It is no surprise that the intervention of the state is formed – as well as the growth of the revolutionary communist workers’ movement, the leap outside syndicalism – from the first aspect.

That both of these are presented in Marx, and indeed in Capital, appears to me inarguable. It could be that an “economistic” reading of capital, like a mere theory of surplus value, is facilitated by the same exposition (I am tempted to believe that it is facilitated by our introjection of “unequal right”). But it is certain that up to volume 1 runs passionately and violently the individuation of the process of alienation, the becoming of a person into a “thing,” seized and discarded in the tumultuous revolutionizing of capital, which uses it and cancels it as a machine, as soon as it gets old, in the acceleration that is imposed on technology; which hires and fires; which deprives of any fixed identity that could come from specific knowledge, craft, and rejects, after use, without any longer knowing anyone, if not that of a fragmented and now technically outmoded and useless gesture – it also deprives him of an identity, even as a man, or producer. Until this “atrophy,” this necrotizing of industrial society, which the same dominant class tries to cope with through models of consumption, welfare, extrinsic culturalization. This is no longer about, as with surplus value, “unjust exchange,” hidden by unequal right; here is pain, destruction, “unrestrained human devastation,” “uninterrupted sacrifice of the working class,” “absolute contradiction.”

Thus violence, coercion and rebellion, revolution: politics, and in it the state, that is the form of domination, are necessarily imbricated in the productive process and the fate of its course. It could be said that there is not in Marx a theory “separate” of the state because it is all identified with the relations of production, but inasmuch as the economic makes itself political: there is no capitalist relation of production without unequal right, as constitutive of the false contract, and without a political power, upstream and downstream of the false contract, of the unjust sale of labor-power that has transformed and degenerated him into a commodity.

4. This mechanism persists, even if in the complex historical variations of the forms of capitalist production and their relation to the state; none of the changes of late capitalism suppress it. The relative reduction of the waged mass of the factory and the expansion of the process of reproduction do not remove the fact that the waged worker remains the soil on which surplus value is produced, so much so that, with every crisis, the recovery of accumulation is entrusted to the attack on the level of wages, to the reduction of the cost of labor, and above all to mobility, which is not a gracious redistribution agreed upon by manual labor, but an attempt to recover total capitalist domination in the organization of labor in the factory, and conservation of the freedom to withdraw and redistribution of investments outside itself. Reciprocal pay and acquisition of power in the factory (up to configuring that political tendency which makes labor an “independent variable”) are objectively intolerable to capital, and which are the other terrains that in the era of multinationals, as well as the era of active state intervention, are offered as “recompense.”

This is the terrain on which contractualism and politics meet, in the sense that the rigidity of labor inasmuch as the outline of working-class domination of labor, is not a purely syndicalist nor corporatist demand; it crosses economism to become the affirmation of a different political subject in production. Conversely, the demands of “economic policies” which are based solely on the allocation of investments to construct new jobs, do not get outside of syndicalism, and not coincidentally fall into the old recourse to public works, their “politicalness” [politicità] lies only in having to be imposed, in times of crisis, with struggle (rarely winning). Different is the attempt to configure models of investment that would have employment at their center, not transitorily, but as the beginning of a transformation of spontaneous directions of capitalist development. One of the pivotal problems of the transition is surely the choice, or forced choice, of the type of productive forces – accepting or beginning to modify the logic of industrialism – as was seen in China after 1957.

In this light, finally, we can sense the real bottleneck of socialist society: it presents itself as political unfreedom, but behind it is the incapacity to initiate a form of production that would tend towards the abolition of wage labor and the alienation of labor-power/commodities. If, with Marx, we can see in this the distinctive characteristics of capitalism, it reveals how this mode of production is prolonged in post-revolutionary societies, and it can be understood why the coercion of the state does not cease. (Others, like Paul Sweezy, hesitate to give the same judgment, since they link the nature of capital essentially to profit, and see its savage growth limited by the intervention of state planning.) This is not the place to further the discussion; suffice it to say that, in these countries, at every attempt to reacquire levels of autonomy, syndical and even more so political, the working class meets gunfire. Is the state form not imbricated in the form of production?

The left-wing parties crash on the same cliff when the enter into the sphere of political economy. This can happen in two forms. One form that does not affect their autonomy: and it is the effect that on productive organization and on investments produce the growth of a movement, not only as motivation, conflictuality, but also as reorganization of labor and alternative culture of the producers (Castellanza). The other form is much more ambiguous: when in the state-boss they take positions or “political” shares of participation. Here, in the form borrowed from parliaments – which to see a strong participation of the workers’ party do not change their internal nature to pure representative democracy – must be added a practice that cannot be borrowed from the “normal” management of capital, from taking care of its compatibilities and limits. Up to becoming, bizarrely, organized forces of laborers and of their counterparts. In this pincer is clenched, particularly in Italy, the Communist Party; so it does not make sense to impute not changing things enough from the place where it is, because the use of a share of economic state power cannot modify the logic of economic state power (if ever it only lubricates it, cutting out privatistic encrustations or elements of corruption – also this, given the specific welfare nature of the Italian state, in modest measure). I wanted to hint briefly at this point because here is the value but also the limit of postwar Gramscianism: it admonishes us that the workers’ party and union do not become institutions without something changing in the accent of the complex political equilibrium, in the forms of domination, coercion and consent, but does not sufficiently warn us of the fact of the introjection of its rules and the cultural horizon. Thus, in beginning to exercise different functions of organization of the historical bloc like struggle and culture, developing the consciousness of a radical antinomy, to become leader and composer of different interests, in the form of “democratic mediation,” the party necessarily adopts the priority of a re-equilibration of the system.

Politically, this means that it dissolves the historical ambiguity of its formation – from the Manifesto to State and Revolution – which implied the intuition of another politics and another state, and remained very much alive in Italy (and I believe without duplicity) still in the constituent phase, in order to accept the horizon of what Marx called “bourgeois right.” How many steps has the Italian left taken in this direction? Here is my objection to the otherwise incisive analyses of De Giovanni or Badaloni on the articulation of a new state: it remains an articulation internal to this horizon, which in its turn is always more compact. Not coincidentally, internal to it is the liberal critique that recently has arisen: they are two variations of the “modern” state.

But the difficulty is real (so real that the whole critique of the left on this terrain can have acute accents, but not leave the liberal democratic horizon itself). It is really a “blind spot,” around which the Critique of the Gotha Program circles, and us as well? The structure of right in which culturally we have been formed – secular, also precapitalist – distinguishes itself from religious laws by being founded on exchange value. Two or more men “measure” themselves through a convention, which expresses in terms of exchange their relations; this begins to occur already in the patriarchal family, where however again right is founded above all on different “powers”; but it is expressed entirely in the polis, in the city, in the political sphere. Votes are equal for unequal men (and also to have it equally among the unequal is desired). Also crime and punishment are founded on the idea of exchange, as if they were commensurable; in fact the “exchange” comes before the punitive moment, which is added to it (punishment and separation do not belong to exchange, projecting deeper relations, less abstract and also more cruel). In the first codes of law of our civilization, in Gortyna, we find that a maiden who had been raped would receive a certain amount of grain if she was raped during the day, a little more if during the night (when the danger is stronger, defense less easy). What did sexual freedom and grain have in common? Nothing. The law can formalize relations insofar as they are projected into the abstract or partial: the girl is compensate in the future with material damages which may come to her, the worker in the contract is only labor-power, the citizen is for the state only a contributor. This right cannot grasp real interhuman relations, it must always: a) decompose them into a simple relation; b) define an abstract measure, which to be applied to unequals, functions as ratification of an additional inequality. Also political man, in the form of the political, is reset to “citizen,” elector; and the more a country is “democratic,” the more the role of power, clad in this or that, is fungible and abstract. Exchange, commodity as measure, transfer, are the means of the deep structure of “bourgeois right.”

The Marxian critique of the political captures this formalism and attacks it. And, to return to Capital, it denounces both levels. The first is the particular inequality of the mandatory contract between the worker and the employer of labor (the share of unpaid labor); the second regards the reduction of one of the two parties, the worker, to labor-power, then commodity. And here not only, as Marx records, emerges the inequality of “equal pay” (because those who are weaker, and those who are stronger attain it with more or less effort) through the abstraction of the “measure of labor.” There is more, something which affects a core value, which is upstream of Capital, the certainty of the inalienability of a person as a historical-natural right. It is the Rousseauism of Marx. Without this value there is no theory of equality, or foundation of inequality; and therefore there is no reason for revolt or revolution.

Now, this inalienable value of the person, whereby he cannot become commodity without being alienated, negated, canceled, can it found a “different” right? We know that it must be, paradoxically, “unequal”; breaking with abstract norms. In The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Bertolt Brecht has a judge, Azdak, exercise “unequal right” to re-establish equality. Certain initiatives during the Cultural Revolution, for example in the calculation of labor in Dazhai, went in this direction. 10 Certain practices of the struggle in Italy as well: when the union of councils opened up, from below, to the decisional will of non-members, it exercises a formally unequal right, reducing the importance of the “right” of membership. The concept itself of “dictatorship of the proletariat” is a theorization of unequal right, indeed in a provocative form. And the same goes for the measure of value: in the workers’ struggle of the 1970s the really innovative and revolutionary thrust went against the “bourgeois” measure of labor, namely time, professionalism, intensity, to weld the wage to the person, and to recompose to the fullest extent the worker already divided in tasks and categories.

In all these fragments of experience the criteria of relations is “decommodification”; as such subtracted to a measure, which is the principle of a right which is presented as equal, to allow exchange. It is understandable why women, entering into politics in this phase, bring with them a stubborn, profound, and often inarticulate refusal of the forms of politics, in which they recognize this abstraction and “exchangist” function. Woman has worked for millennia, but, up to recent periods, produced use values, not exchange values; and also when capital threw her into the production of commodities, the large part of her day was spent on the production of goods for use, only putting food on the table, stitching clothes for her child. She knew the value of these goods for use; but “different,” not exchangeable, complex, strongly humanized and interpersonal. Thus in the family it is not that she is subtracted from a norm, or has it – in an old age – imposed; but it is certain that a norm not founded on formal inequality (sex, age, parental arrangement, with a dense tissue of protective and coercive relations, not fungible outside the family). This whole network of interpersonal relations produces a culture that is not at all unarticulated, but is certainly not articulated in right; sometimes, right must intervene to decompose it, to modernize and, for example in the case of woman, emancipate her.

Here, can we imagine – as the first outlines of this blind zone in which we feel the wearing down of the old state, the old horizon of the political, the old right – a principle of cultural recomposition founded on an “unequal right” for equality?

Whatever difficulty may be, we need it. Only one point concerning what Althusser has written does not convince me, and that is the possibility of a new foundation of politics, and thus of right – through which the withering away of the state proceeds, up to those necessary “social and administrative functions” – could come through the “interstitial” reality in which they are outlined [accennare].

A society traversed by unequal freedoms is surely more articulated and complex than the current one, not less. In this sense I am persuaded of this growth of the political sphere, which Ingrao insists upon, although his analysis, when prescriptive, often reduces it to the infinite partition of “apparently unequal right,” thus not grasping the different significance that comes from civil society. But this politics, emerging from the critique of the political, this state that is transitional to the extent that it shrinks, reinstituting to civil mechanisms the principle of self-regulation – in brief, the less state, the more politics – how it can grow remaining, as it heretofore remains, in the blockage [chiuso] of the advanced factory experiments, in the intuitions of the union of councils, in the idea of the “producer,” in the practice of the feminist movement? Its problem of expansion comes only from the friction that pits it against others (the dominant class deriving advantages from the persistence of the liberal state, or of those oppressed) or its own given limits – the long centuries of an unthought right, based on the inalienability or the non-commodification of the person?

If this is the case, the blind spot in the theme of the state, the point on which Marx stopped in the Critique of the Gotha Program (and you really see him, in these pages, moving hesitantly, stopping, deferring) can only take form together with the withering away of “the mode of men to organize their existence” proper to capital, that is with the beginning of the end of commodification and alienation. There is no right, Marx says, which precedes social forms. And it is because we are at this point, on the verge of a change of these dimensions – and it is not an accident that we are living at as an acute cultural crisis – that we feel we are finishing a history, we feel the emptying of its forms, we just barely sense new forms: of production and of the state, or neither one nor the other.

– Translated by Asad Haider

This text originally appeared as “Critica della politica e ‘diritto ineguale,’” in Discutere lo stato (Bari: De Donato, 1978), 311-336.

Thanks to Dave Mesing for invaluable comments on the draft translation.


This article is part of a dossier entitled “The Crisis of Marxism.”

References   [ + ]

1. See Critica Marxista 15.6 (1977).
2. In Giuseppe Vacca, Quale democrazia (Bari: De Donato. 1978), 13-58.
3. Cesare Luporini, ““Critica della politica e critica dell’economia politica in Marx,” Critica Marxista 16.1 (1978): 17-50.
4. See Giorgio Amendola’s intervention in Mondoperaia (April 1978), where he reproaches the Socialists for their lack of presence [fisionomia].
5. Luporini, ““Critica della politica e critica dell’economia politica in Marx.”
6. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1976, 899. Translator’s Note: Rossanda attributes this to chapter 24, as the order of the chapters in the Italian translation is different.
7. Ibid., 929, emphasis mine.
8. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 3, trans. David Fernbach (London: Penguin/NLB, 1981), 1019. TN: The Italian translation she cites says literally that the worker is a “seller of commodities, namely himself as labor-power.”
9. Karl Marx, “The Fragment on Machines,” in Grundrisse, trans. Martin Nicolaus (London: Penguin, 1973), 693.
10. TN: A particular kind of work-point or “responsibility” system established in Chinese rural areas during the Cultural Revolution, with peasants collectively working to finish tasks at paces set by team leaders, with the rewards and merits of the process distributed and discussed after the fact. See Tang Tsou, The Cultural Revolution and Post-Mao Reforms: A Historical Perspective (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 191-92.

Author of the article

is an Italian journalist and one of the founding editors of the left-wing daily newspaper, Il Manifesto. A member of the Italian Communist Party from the time Resistance until her expulsion long with other members of the Il Manifesto group in 1969, she has remained an influential figure and analyst. on the Italian left. In English, she is the author of The Comrade from Milan (Verso, 2008), her political memoirs.