Subjectivity and Class Composition: Methodological Notes on Krahl and Negri

Krahl and other students block a street during a May 30, 1968 demonstration in Frankfurt (AP)

“Why do those who have no need for it take up the red flag?” “It is humanity that understands itself in activity.” 1 With this quote from Bloch, Hans-Jürgen Krahl concludes the brief political autobiography he wrote while facing the trial that saw him and several of his comrades tried for protest actions against the conferring of the peace prize on Senegalese president Leopold Senghor in 1968 by the Deutscher Buchhandel. Here we find pages full of a lived, political intensity that portray “the background of experiences from which a process of politicization arose” for a man who, born in a context packed with “ideologies of blood and land,” managed to “pass from a feudal state of nature of an agricultural economy to a modern, capitalist industrial society.” 2 And also, to pass from the Christian Democrat-conservative positions of the CDU to the anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist movements, and more generally, Marxism. But how did this transition happen – how was it possible for Krahl to take up the red flag?

[This transition] did not happen due to the mourning for the death of the bourgeois individual, but due to the experience, mediated by the intellect, of what exploitation, total and radical destruction, means in this society, i.e., of the development of needs in the dimension of human consciousness. It is the enchainment of the masses to the most elementary forms of the satisfaction of needs, when even material needs are substantially satisfied, for the fear that the state and capital extract the guarantees of security from. 3

Experience mediated by the intellect: theory and practice, closely linked, with the former deriving from the latter and vice versa. Krahl’s reflection arises in contingency, or even, for contingency. It serves an immediate political necessity: thinking revolution in “late capitalism,” posing the problem of the overthrow of capitalism. In all likelihood, this is Krahl’s greatest strength, and also his major point of friction with the Frankfurt School Critical Theory in which he had been trained. On several occasions, Krahl lashes out against a knowledge that has abandoned the possibility of any practical intervention, such that “the immediately practical vice of Critical Theory” appears as “the theoretical absence, in the formation of the theory itself, of class antagonism,” and “the misery of Critical Theory consists simply in the absence of the organizational question.” 4 Emblematic, in this regard, is the following 1968 anecdote, in which Krahl recounts the student occupation of the University of Frankfurt: “unique among the professors, Adorno came to the students in their sit-in. Showered with ovations, he headed straight towards the microphone and, when he got close to it, deviated into the philosophy seminar; one step away from practice, he returned to theory.” 5

This characteristic – thinking in and for contingency – is also a part of another substantial experience in heretical Marxism. Elsewhere, Italian workerism experimented in both theory and practice with the same exigency. And, in full continuity, a workerist like Antonio Negri has continued to reproduce that method, continued to pursue an unstable theory of revolution – unstable because its counterpart is unstable and changing. In this case as well, we are faced with a thought nourished and strengthened by experience, as Negri’s autobiography demonstrates. 6 And in this case too, communist heresy must first of all clear the field of orthodoxy, getting rid of those who wish to apply pre-packaged recipes which are (perhaps) good for theory, but have nothing to say in practice, in contingency. Starting from practice, therefore, in order to return to practice. From this common intent comes a common method, which perhaps represents one of the most important legacies in Krahl and Negri. The aim of this essay is precisely to investigate this method and its heresy along two fundamental lines: subjectivity and class composition.


The question of subjectivity immediately appears as central to both thinkers. It runs throughout all of Negri’s work, but takes on particular importance in his writings from the 1970s, due to the political situation in which Negri found himself thinking and acting. From the first of the fourteen theses that comprise Proletarians and the State, Negri claims that “the subjective insurgency of working class and proletarian struggle” 7 presents itself as the element capable of multiplying the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, as well as the brake slowing down capitalist reaction (restructuring), and even as determining the “crisis of the Historical Compromise,” 8 and the realization of the “transition” to communism, which is

possible when the working class, instead of being moved by capital, moves itself and subordinates capital to its own forms of behavior. This material and objective dictatorship of the class over capital is the first fundamental passage of transition, most obviously when the relationship does not result in the capitalist mediation of development, but rather in the workers’ mediation of the capital’s crisis. 9

In Domination and Sabotage, Negri puts forth a revolutionary theory that moves from the viewpoint of “proletarian self-valorization,” or the necessity that the proletariat disengage from its relation with capital, and in this way – destroying that relation – determine the “capitalist catastrophe.” 10 The critique of reformism is based precisely on this assumption: reformist politics denies the self-valorization/de-structuration nexus because it believes that the only valorization possible is capitalist valorization, and therefore poses the capitalist governing of valorization as the only problem, rather than an explosion against capital: “when we say self-valorization, we mean the alternative that the working class sets into motion on the terrain of production and reproduction, by appropriating power [potere] and re-appropriating wealth, in opposition to the capitalist mechanisms of accumulation and development.” 11 In this text, a reference to Krahl appears, in the first notes to the second section. Not by chance, this section has the title “A First Parenthesis, Regarding Method.” Negri writes:

As Hans-Jürgen Krahl has intuited, the totality of class consciousness is first and foremost an intensive condition, a folding back on the totality of productive being, which elides the relationship with the totality of the capitalist system. Class self-valorization is above all de-structuring of the enemy totality, taken to the point of exclusivity of the self-recognition of the class’s own independence. I am not depicting the history of class consciousness in a Lukacsian sense, as some predestined, all-embracing recomposition; on the contrary, I see it as a moment of intensive rooting within my own separateness. I am other—as is the movement of that collective practice within which I am included. 12

On the one hand, therefore, the Lukacs of History and Class Consciousness presents a dialectical schema that we could define as classic, wherein, in the transition to synthesis, the antithetical contradiction (the working class) is “resolved,” that is, recomposed into a totality (communist, but still recomposed totality). On the other, Negri uses Krahl for the contrast (beyond recomposition) between the proletarian totality and the capitalist totality in order to claim the alterity of the contradiction (the working class) not only in the absence of the necessity of the decisive moment of synthesis, but also in its capacity for precisely breaking the dialectical schema which presents itself not so much as a negative contradiction, but more as an autonomous subjectivity.

My relationship with the totality of capitalist development, with the totality of historical development, is guaranteed solely by the force of destructuring that the movement determines, by the overall sabotage of the history of capital that the movement enacts. […] I define myself by separating myself from the totality; I define totality as other than me, as a net that is cast over the continuity of the historical sabotage that the working class carries out. 13

The autonomous constitution of the class takes place by separation from the capitalist totality, and not only by conflict. The existence of conflict, in fact, does not preclude the presence of a relationship (albeit, precisely, conflictual), whereas on the contrary, separation necessarily implies dissolution. This is why in the first case the working class can still be conceived as a “dialectical object” that occupies the position of negative contradiction, while in the second case it must be conceived as “antagonistic subject” capable of breaking – by itself – the capital relation: “I do not want the other, I want instead to destroy it. The fact of my existence implies the destructuring of the other. Above all else, I want to acquire a method by which to increase my separation, to conquer the world by appropriating the network of class self-valorization.” 14

Krahl’s critique of Lukacs demonstrates the same refusal of a transcendental approach to the working class, and the necessity to bring the revolution down to the immanence (contingency) of proletarians as subjects. On the contrary, the main problem of the author of History and Class Consciousness lies both in the hypostatization of an ahistoric “identity of the revolution” of Leninist nature, 15 and in the development of a concept of “class consciousness” that, fundamentally, assumes idealizing traits that stand in no relation to “the experience of struggle”: “[Lukacs’s] way of dealing with the question of organization and class consciousness implies a concept of totality that does not arrive within the empirical psychological consciousness of individual proletarians. They can only carry out, post festum, the decisions of the central committee, which is the only instance that refers to the totality.” 16 And again, “because class consciousness can truly form itself as partisan consciousness of totality, the theoretical moment of scientific socialism, even if transformed and mediated, it must be translated into the consciousness of the masses and entered into their experience. Lukacs is incapable of identifying this moment of translation” 17 because he opposes that which must be the objectivity of the class’s dialectical position against the subjectivity of the class. Against the ahistorical and idealized interpretations of the October Revolution “and the Leninist party of cadres, which suggests mechanistic organizational models,” 18 Krahl opposes instead the necessity of considering historical materialism as a “non-conclusive theory,” impossible to identify solely with a party or nation. Historical materialism is a fluid theory, and its practice must also be fluid. Otherwise, it is impossible to develop a revolutionary theory for late capitalist metropolises. It is not possible to newly run into the errors of “Marx’s epigones in the Second International, who used the image of a natural and continual progress of humankind in order to dispense the proletariat and themselves from the revolutionary task of liberation in order to rationalize their reformist betrayal.” 19 Revolution is not an objective matter of the dialectic, but a subjective task of the proletariat.

Class Composition

“Lenin’s April Theses, after all, could only have been written in April 1917.” 20 These are Negri’s words, which very well could have been written by Krahl. For both, indeed, the question of subjectivity, of the refusal of a mechanistic idea of revolution, rests on a foundation that makes theory begin from practice: the variability of class composition, both technical and political, and the specific mutations that took place in the working class of the metropolises invested by capitalist restructuring, that is, by the extension of the factory – or better, of the capitalist relation of the Fordist factory – to the whole of society. 21 Hence the necessity of again shifting the viewpoint, to focus on the class and its partiality, in order to develop valid and functional organizational methods. If, as Negri writes, “the entire society is drawn into subordination to the enterprise-command,” and “the form of enterprise production becomes the hegemonic form of the overall social relation,” 22 then the only possible operation is that of decentering the concept of working class from its Fordist framing, that is, from the identifications of the identities in the traditional labor movement. In the words of Krahl, it is necessary to extend the category of working class beyond the industrial working class, and to identify a “collective worker” who integrates intellectual, and, we could say, relational labor into productive labor. In this sense, Krahl’s critique of Habermas’s conception of production is masterful. 23 Historical materialism, Krahl reiterates, must be considered a non-conclusive theory, impossible to identify solely with a party or nation. And impossible to identify with a precise place as well, we can add, the Fordist factory and its enclosures.

Here is why Krahl considers the extension of the concept of class beyond the industrial proletariat necessary:

the second fact – which concerns rather the elaboration of a revolutionary strategy by the SDS – lies only in the SDS’s own concept of class: a limited concept, because it in fact only includes the industrial proletariat. If we account for the measure in which science and technology have today become a universal social and economic productive force – even without going into value theory – then, according to the Marxian approach, we must move from the widening of productive labor. […] In other words: if intellectual labor is always more incorporated into productive labor, then the industrial proletariat, the army of mechanical workers who perform physical labor, can no longer develop by itself the totality of proletarian class consciousness. 24

This passage becomes even clearer in the “Theses on the General Relationship of the Scientific Intelligentsia to Proletarian Class Consciousness”:

If the sciences, according to their degree of technical applicability, and their bearers, intellectual laborers, are now integrated into an overall productive laborers, it is no longer acceptable that social-revolutionary strategies continue to refer almost exclusively to the industrial proletariat. The possibility, for scientific intelligentsia, of developing a proletarian class consciousness, is not in question; we need to ask ourselves what modification has taken place in the concept of the immediate producer, and therefore, the working class. 25

Understanding this modification is essential for elaborating a revolutionary strategy that does not limit itself to a sterile re-presentation of mechanistic, identitarian, and in the last instance, idealized political practices. But what is the context, we could say contingency, within which Krahl arrives at these conclusions? In the midst of late capitalism and the ‘68 protests, Krahl finds himself faced with “on the one hand, a student movement increasingly hypnotized by the organizational models of the past and greedy for dogmatic certainties, and on the other, a critical intelligentsia frightened by its own catastrophic predictions and torn between tragic ethics and the reformist adjustments and Realpolitik of the organized labor movement, which by then included the compatibility of the market economy within the parameters of its teleological-objectivist doctrine.” 26 An SDS that “agonizes between Marxist-Leninist reflux and sclerosis” while “the workers organizations, followed by a large part of democratic public opinion, peacefully digest extremely heavy measures restricting democracy in the Federal Republic.” 27 It is at this juncture that Krahl poses the question of revolution in late capitalism, “the problem of communism as a problem of his present.” 28

An analogous problem and a similar reflection can be found in Negri. What does the figure of the social worker represent in the crisis of the 1970s, in fact, if not the attempt to identify a new antagonistic figure in the restructuration of metropolis, which is impossible to comprehend within the objectivistic determination of the concept of the industrial working class? The terrain on which proletarian subjectivity fights its antagonistic battle by means of self-valorization is the entire society. “The mechanism worker attack-capitalist restructuration,-reconfiguration of class composition” 29 leads from the mass worker to the social worker in a Krahlian sense: “to dissolve the concept of the working class produced by the Second International is to respond to the theoretical imperative, which is to discern the proper characteristics of a subject that results from the combined apparatus of workers’ struggles and capitalist restructuring in this historical period.” 30 What is this historical period? That in which, for both Negri and Krahl, “the category of the ‘working class’ goes into crisis but as the proletariat it continues to produce all of the effects that are proper to it on the social terrain as a whole.” 31 For this reason, the path that both present can be summarized in a trajectory that goes from the objectivity of the working class to the subjectivity of the proletariat.

When in the 2000s the social worker became the “multitude,” it did not lose the characteristics of antagonism that derive from its predecessor, or the possibility of converging with Krahl. For both the multitude and the collective worker, it becomes necessary to broaden the concept of production to the immaterial – not by chance, Krahl refers to the university as a “factory of scientific production.” 32

In the Foreword to the Italian edition of Constitution and Class Struggle, Detlev Claussen writes that “three years after Krahl’s death, it became clearer which two situations in late capitalism must be confronted by a radical politics of the left: a politicization of the spontaneous needs of the masses and the necessity of turning such action against a concrete enemy.” 33

What can we gather from all of this today? First of all, a method – both heretical and, potentially, efficacious – of analysis, but above all, political intervention. A method that, on the basis of these two elements – class composition and subjectivity – is both tactical and strategic. Tactically, the analysis of class composition allows the politicization of “the spontaneous needs of the masses,” at least because it allows us to know them. It allows us to know them in contingency, that is, away from the identitarian and sociological demands of these “masses,” and allows for the microphysical individuation of those points in which it is possible that the capitalist relation will crack. Strategically, subjectivity reminds us that no preconceived revolutionary recipe is possible, that no mechanism exists behind the revolution, that, in the last instance, there is a concrete enemy to depose. And that this task belongs to proletarians, no matter whether they work in material or immaterial production.

— Translated by Dave Mesing


References   [ + ]

1. Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, cited in Hans-Jürgen Krahl, Costituzione e lotta di classe (Milano: Jaca Book, 1973), 38.
2. Hans-Jürgen Krahl, Costituzione e lotta di classe (Milano: Jaca Book, 1973), 28.
3. Ibid., 38.
4. Ibid., 322.
5. Ibid., 281.
6. Antonio Negri, Storia di un comunista, ed. Girolamo de Michele (Milano: Ponte alle Grazie, 2015).
7. Antonio Negri, Proletarians and the State, in Antonio Negri, Books for Burning: Between Civil War and Democracy in 1970s Italy (London: Verso, 2005), 123.
8. Ibid., 150.
9. Ibid., 162.
10. Negri opposes the existence of a nexus between crisis theory and class composition in Marx against the mechanistic reading of “Marxian catastrophism”: “It is in the making of the struggle, the incessant internal modification in the relationship between classes, the continuity of the process of recomposition of the proletariat that determines the pace and forms of the crisis. Moreover, at this point the analysis of the crisis falls back upon the analysis of working-class composition as the only explanation of the crisis itself. In the second place, this analytical explanation becomes a prescription of forms of behavior and an indication and definition of tasks.” Antonio Negri, Workers’ Party Against Work, in Antonio Negri, Books for Burning: Between Civil War and Democracy in 1970s Italy (London: Verso, 2005), 53. Negri adds that “only Lenin knows how to read the relationship between political class composition and organization in adequate Marxian terms,” but his epigones have “made Leninism into a key to open every door, and imposed the identity of the revolutionary model and the quality of the social formation described by Lenin as a scheme applicable at all times and all places.” Ibid, 54-55. Translation modified.
11. Antonio Negri, Domination and Sabotage: On the Marxist Method of Social Transformation, trans. Ed Emery and rev. Timothy S. Murphy, in Antonio Negri, Books for Burning: Between Civil War and Democracy in 1970s Italy (London: Verso, 2005), 255.
12. Ibid., 237.
13. Ibid., 238.
14. Ibid., 260.
15. See “Estratti da una discussione su Lukacs,” in Costituzione e lotta di classe, 229-233.
16. Krahl, Costituzione e lotta di classe, 367.
17. Ibid., 368.
18. Ibid., 362.
19. Ibid., 240.
20. Antonio Negri, Crisis of the Planner-State, in Antonio Negri, Books for Burning: Between Civil War and Democracy in 1970s Italy (London: Verso, 2005), 15.
21. “The authoritarian state can exercise the economic domination within capitalist business only through the false delimitations that are constitutive of capitalist sovereignty, which is to say, only through the extension of factory discipline to the entire society.” Krahl, Costituzione e lotta di classe, 142. It is interesting to return to Tronti’s analysis in “The Factory and Society” here. His point of departure is the contradiction between the sociality of the production process and the private appropriation of the product, explained as the contradiction between the “single capitalist” who tries to break down the sociality of the process and the “collective worker” who recomposes it for the capitalist, between the “boss’ attempt at economic integration and the political response of worker antagonism.” According to Tronti, this contradiction extends beyond the factory to all of society - such that “factory-State-society is the point in which scientific theory and subversive practice, the analysis of capitalism and worker revolution, coincide” - and “at the highest level of capitalist development, the social relation becomes a moment of the relation of production, and society becomes an articulation of production, i.e., all of society lives according to the function of the factory and the factory extends its exclusive domination over all of society.” Mario Tronti, “La fabbrica e la societa,” Quaderni Rossi 2 (1962): 20. This clearly does not mean that the social relations of the Fordist factory disappear, but that they are spread throughout the social body, mystified as processes of outsourcing when, actually, they are processes of proletarianization. Against the ideology that wants to mystify these processes, Tronti claims the necessity of observing distribution, exchange, and consumption from the viewpoint of production (and production from the viewpoint of valorization), that is, the necessity of observing society by starting from the factory. The extension of the factory to all of society remains. Differently from Krahl, however, for Tronti this extension marks the loss of the centrality of an immediate revolutionary possibility, and manifests his turn towards the autonomy of the political in embryo.
22. Negri, Workers’ Party Against Work, 72.
23. Krahl, Costituzione e lotta di classe, 354.
24. Ibid., 347-348.
25. Ibid., 366.
26. Marco Bascetta, “Prefazione” to Hans-Jürgen Krahl, Attualita della rivoluzione: Teoria Critica e Capitalismo maturo (Roma: Manifestolibri, 1998), 8-9.
27. Ibid., 9.
28. Ibid., 10.
29. Antonio Negri, Dall’operaio massa all’operiao sociale: Intervista sull’operiasmo (Verona: Ombré Corte, 2007), 21.
30. Antonio Negri, Proletarians and the State, in Antonio Negri, Books for Burning: Between Civil War and Democracy in 1970s Italy (London: Verso, 2005), 126.
31. Ibid.
32. Krahl, Costituzione e lotta di classe, 237. It should be noted that in these passages, both Krahl and Negri refer to a “heterodox” Marx, that of the Grundrisse and the general intellect for Negri, and that of the unedited sixth chapter of Capital for Krahl.
33. Detlev Claussen, “Premessa all’edizione italiana,” in Krahl, Costituzione e lotta di classe, 11.

Author of the article

is a PhD student at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, Italy. He also works as a teaching assistant at the University of Milan, and is part of the organizing group of the Critical Theory of Society seminar at the University of Milan Bicocca. For the last ten years, he has been part of the editorial collective of Radio Onda d'Urto.