May ’68, from the Critique of Society to the Critique of Political Economy

Rediscovering the Worker’s Centrality: Introduction to Bellofiore’s “Critique of Society and Critique of Economy“1

The ghost of May ’68 con­tin­ues to haunt us. Here­in resides the para­dox: we have not fin­ished with May ’68, despite the by now rit­u­al­is­tic and com­pla­cent com­mem­o­ra­tions, which in this fifti­eth anniver­sary have inte­grat­ed the glob­al acad­e­my. In 1984, Deleuze and Guat­tari provoca­tive­ly claimed that “May 68 did not take place” because the sub­jec­tive cri­sis it opened had not yet been resolved and there­fore the poten­tial­i­ties of the event were still open-end­ed. In the very same year, the cri­sis in the nation­al tra­di­tion in France was also acknowl­edged by Pierre Nora, who sought to heal the rift between liv­ing mem­o­ry and offi­cial his­to­ry in what Niet­zsche would not have hes­i­tat­ed to call “mon­u­men­tal his­to­ry,” an inven­to­ry of Lieux de Mémoire, of “invent­ed tra­di­tions” that would dis­solve the his­to­ry of two cen­turies of “the class strug­gles in France” in the sooth­ing balm of con­sen­su­al com­mem­o­ra­tion. This abo­li­tion of the futur antérieur was insep­a­ra­ble from a pos­i­tivist tele­ol­o­gy, one in which the very mean­ing of the event was reduced to a causal series con­tain­ing its imme­di­ate con­se­quences. Hence the offi­cial line, pio­neered by Régis Debray in 1978 for the tenth anniver­sary, of May as sweep­ing away out­dat­ed author­i­tar­i­an struc­tures, a cul­tur­al rev­o­lu­tion iron­i­cal­ly inau­gu­rat­ing its oppo­site, a new cap­i­tal­ist order based on the auton­o­my of the indi­vid­ual. With this, the event itself is con­sid­ered lit­tle more than a “stu­dent revolt,” in which the mem­o­ry of the largest gen­er­al strike in Euro­pean his­to­ry and the glob­al rev­o­lu­tion­ary wave is repressed, plain and sim­ple. Illus­trat­ing the uni­ty of the wor­ship of the fait accom­pli and “police thought,” Nico­las Sarkozy cam­paigned for reelec­tion to the French pres­i­den­cy in 2008 on a tick­et of “liquidat[ing] 1968,” while con­fid­ing that its real essence was that of lais­sez-faire. Faced with the col­lapse of the future in an eter­nal present, crit­i­cal thought has often ele­vat­ed the event itself to a sort of mir­a­cle. In this way, its sur­plus char­ac­ter to the state of the sit­u­a­tion ignores the fact that the act of inter­pre­ta­tion in which a sub­ject is con­sti­tut­ed is also a ret­ro­spec­tive relo­ca­tion of the event in a series of con­tra­dic­tions tra­vers­ing the sit­u­a­tion, but hid­den from view, such that its inher­ent pos­si­bil­i­ties for change are grasped under con­di­tions of ram­i­fy­ing and uncon­trol­lable cri­sis, pre­cise­ly as rev­o­lu­tion.

The impor­tance of the text of Ric­car­do Bellofiore, orig­i­nal­ly pre­sent­ed at a con­fer­ence held in Bres­cia in 1989 on “1968-1988: Twen­ty years after, a bal­ance sheet,” lies in the fact that it over­comes this dual­ism of sin­gu­lar event and a tele­ol­o­gy, where ‘68 is annexed to mod­ern­iza­tion the­o­ry which in the Ital­ian case rep­re­sents a val­i­da­tion of the long term per­spec­tives of the PCI, of a pro­gres­sive aggior­na­men­to of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment rather than its super­s­es­sion. The prob­lem is and was to grasp the year 1968 as a pas­sage from the cri­tique of soci­ety to the cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­o­my, a pas­sage from the stu­dent move­ment to the “long hot autumn” of ’69. The inter­pre­ta­tive inter­ven­tion fig­ures the cri­sis inau­gu­rat­ed by the Ital­ian “May in slow motion” “not [as] the inter­nal cri­sis of a mech­a­nism,” but as the “redis­cov­ery of the real worker’s motives against a pro­duc­tive sys­tem that instead reduces per­sons to cogs in a machine.” Bellofiore dis­cov­ers in this “work­ers’ cen­tral­i­ty” span­ning the length of the 1970s a social the­o­ry of Fordist cri­sis insti­gat­ed by work­er insub­or­di­na­tion. The con­clu­sion unset­tles the con­se­crat­ed nar­ra­tives of the Ital­ian rad­i­cal left. The latter’s fail­ure was not in an obses­sion with the prob­lem­at­ic of pow­er or an over­es­ti­ma­tion of the antag­o­nism, but in grasp­ing “the rela­tion labor-val­oriza­tion-cri­sis-restruc­tur­ing,” the cri­sis set off by the strug­gle over labor time and the counter-attack of cap­i­tal.

Behind this lies, den­tro e con­tro, a sophis­ti­cat­ed cri­tique of the­o­ret­i­cal operais­mo. Tron­ti famous­ly dis­tin­guished, on the one hand, between “labor-pow­er” as ful­ly inte­grat­ed with­in cap­i­tal, and on the oth­er, the “work­ing class,” labor that refus­es to be incor­po­rat­ed by cap­i­tal. In an 1982 essay pub­lished in Unità Pro­le­taria2, Bellofiore recalled that in the act of exchange on the labor mar­ket it is labor-pow­er and not labor that is appro­pri­at­ed by cap­i­tal. But, as we see in his text, it is “the pecu­liar char­ac­ter­is­tic of this commodity…that the sep­a­ra­tion of the com­mod­i­ty sold (labor capac­i­ty) from the con­crete indi­vid­ual is impos­si­ble.” Labor must be extract­ed from liv­ing labor by cap­i­tal, ren­der­ing the class strug­gle in pro­duc­tion inevitable. In the­o­ret­i­cal operais­mo, the inter­nal con­tra­dic­tion with­in wage labor is absent: on the one hand, as abstract labor pro­duc­ing sur­plus val­ue it pro­duces cap­i­tal, and on the oth­er, in repro­duc­ing itself as labor-pow­er through exchange with vari­able cap­i­tal it is also the prod­uct of cap­i­tal. In turn, the con­tra­dic­tion between cap­i­tal and labor either dis­ap­pears, is reduced to dis­trib­u­tive strug­gles (Negri’s “wage as inde­pen­dent vari­able”) or involves an impos­si­ble exit from labor itself (“refusal of work”). The cri­sis of the ‘70s instead aris­es from the “auton­o­my of the use val­ue of labor-pow­er from the move­ments of cap­i­tal” whose objec­tiv­i­ty is ignored by all those declar­ing “the end of the law of val­ue.” Against the “pos­ses­sive mem­o­ry” of com­mem­o­ra­tion and “eulo­gy to the absence of mem­o­ry” (Negri), strate­gic rea­son turns to a his­to­ry of the present. In short, these would be the main premis­es of the dis­cus­sion.

— Tijana Okić


“The work­ers’ strug­gle appeared in such a form that it was nei­ther sim­ply redis­trib­u­tive nor mere­ly nor­ma­tive, but became polit­i­cal in a nar­row­er sense in that it often pro­found­ly weak­ened one of the con­di­tions nec­es­sary for the real­iza­tion of the cap­i­tal­ist rela­tion, name­ly the sub­or­di­na­tion, the lack of auton­o­my of the work­ing class with­in the process of pro­duc­tion […] the eco­nom­ic and social cri­sis is essen­tial­ly due to this work­ers’ thrust in the sense that the process of accu­mu­la­tion, already hit by the suc­cess­es at the begin­ning of the six­ties on the ter­rain of dis­tri­b­u­tion, was lat­er hit even hard­er by that con­quest of work­ers’ auton­o­my which has severe­ly lim­it­ed the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a cap­i­tal­ist response in tra­di­tion­al terms, that is in terms of an increase in the degree of exploita­tion.”

— Clau­dio Napoleoni

“The prob­lem of oth­ers is just like mine: resolv­ing it togeth­er is pol­i­tics: resolv­ing it alone is self­ish.”

— From Let­ter to a Teacher3

A Non-protagonist

I was only a spec­ta­tor of ’68, and yet it has to an extent defined what I have become.4 Above all, I was a spec­ta­tor because of time and place. Between the end of ’67 and the sum­mer of ’68 – the peri­od in which the real ’68 devel­oped in Turin and Tren­to, Pisa and Rome – I was actu­al­ly very young, and I lived else­where: ’68 reached me as a some­what dis­tant echo, like one among many of the fash­ions of the roar­ing ‘60s, and I remem­ber it annoy­ing me some­what. I was a kid, but already ter­ri­bly moral­is­tic even then.

I arrived in Turin with my par­ents in Sep­tem­ber of ‘68. It was the dawn of what would lat­er become the work­ers’ ’69: the great absence – as I will argue – in the com­mem­o­ra­tions of these years, squeezed between the twen­ti­eth anniver­sary of the stu­dent strug­gles and the bicen­te­nary of the French Rev­o­lu­tion. Two events to which almost every­one now feels heir, whilst vir­tu­al­ly nobody wants to hear about this oth­er twen­ti­eth anniver­sary. I encoun­tered the wave of ’68 at high school, one of the places where the insub­or­di­na­tion which start­ed in the uni­ver­si­ties spread like wild­fire. My mem­o­ry of it is not a par­tic­u­lar­ly hap­py one, at least on the indi­vid­ual lev­el: the cul­ture of the stu­dent move­ment had already become (I do not know if it had always been thus, but I would not rule it out a pri­ori) nor­ma­tive and puni­tive; a cer­tain lan­guage, cer­tain prac­tices, a cer­tain rad­i­cal­ism were by now more or less manda­to­ry. Yet it was a new way of being active, capa­ble of trans­form­ing one­self and the place where one spent a good part of one’s day, and not take any­thing for grant­ed.

The months and years to come were indeed marked by work­ers’ strug­gles, and by the reper­cus­sions of the stu­dent strug­gles of ’68 and the strug­gles with­in the fac­to­ries of ’69 in almost the whole of soci­ety. Here as well, on a per­son­al lev­el, not every­thing went right. My father expe­ri­enced the work­ers’ strug­gles from the oth­er side: a police offi­cer who rose ear­ly in the morn­ing to go and stand in front of the fac­to­ries to defend the estab­lished order, not to crit­i­cize it; I nev­er real­ly man­aged not to be wor­ried about this, or even to be on his side. Cer­tain­ly, how­ev­er, those pick­ets and inter­nal fac­to­ry demon­stra­tions seemed to me not total­ly sep­a­rat­ed from the val­ues ​​of free­dom and equal­i­ty he had taught me.

The fact that I became an econ­o­mist, though I enrolled in a law degree – and in the way I did it, as an econ­o­mist who wants to do that some­what strange and pecu­liar thing, now def­i­nite­ly retro, name­ly a “cri­tique” of econ­o­my – was, I believe, also due to these begin­nings. Free­dom for all and not just for some, real and not only for­mal equal­i­ty involved fun­da­men­tal­ly ques­tion­ing this soci­ety, above all when insub­or­di­na­tion affect­ed what seemed to reveal itself once more as the cen­tral place, the “social rela­tions of pro­duc­tion” in the fac­to­ry. For me, a bud­ding intel­lec­tu­al, the best way to par­tic­i­pate was to become an econ­o­mist and Marx­ist. An expert in that sci­ence that explains how and why this soci­ety is based on the exploita­tion of labor, how and why the pri­ma­cy of the eco­nom­ic is the heart of super­vised free­dom and mere­ly abstract equal­i­ty. But also a crit­ic of that sci­ence: because only the destruc­tion of the real pri­ma­cy of the laws of pro­duc­tion over women and men placed on the agen­da the con­crete pos­si­bil­i­ty of oth­er ways of being togeth­er.

An Unstable Equilibrium

In many dis­cus­sions of ’68 in the last year the econ­o­my is strange­ly absent. When I say econ­o­my, in fact I mean two things. On the one hand, the mate­r­i­al bases of an inter­na­tion­al phe­nom­e­non like the stu­dent protest of those years. On the oth­er hand, the role, if there was one, of eco­nom­ic analy­sis in the cul­ture of the “six­ty-eighters.” In what fol­lows, intend­ed as a mere “con­tri­bu­tion,” I would like to explain myself and the rea­son for this absence; and demon­strate why it seems to me that this absence rep­re­sents a prob­lem. If the ques­tion turns out to be not only mine, I may fol­low up my notes, which for now are lit­tle more than a provo­ca­tion, in a more devel­oped form.

I will approach the ques­tion from a dis­tance, sum­ma­riz­ing what was writ­ten and said on the twen­ti­eth anniver­sary. If we exempt jour­nal­is­tic com­mem­o­ra­tions (the excel­lent one by Il Man­i­festo; of the oth­ers, it is bet­ter to keep silent), it seems to me that ’68 has basi­cal­ly been dis­cussed in two ways. On one hand, mem­oir or cul­tur­al analy­ses, of which the most thor­ough and felic­i­tous seem to me the books of Luisa Passeri­ni, Autori­trat­to di grup­po [Group Self-por­trait], and Pep­pino Ortol­e­va, Sag­gio sui movi­men­ti del 1968 in Europa e in Amer­i­ca [An essay on the move­ments of 1968 in Europe and Amer­i­ca]. On the oth­er hand, read­ings on the polit­i­cal con­se­quences of ’68, a good exam­ple of which are two inter­ven­tions at the recent Turin con­fer­ence, one by Gian Gia­co­mo Migone (“Il caso ital­iano e il con­testo inter­nazionale” [The Ital­ian case and the inter­na­tion­al con­text], par­tial­ly pub­lished in L’Indice under the title, “Chi par­la e chi tace” [Who speaks and who is silent], Novem­ber 1988), the oth­er by Nico­la Tranfaglia (“Il ’68 e gli anni ’70 in Italia” [’68 and the ‘70s in Italy], which part­ly takes up the­ses also con­tained in his intro­duc­tion to the book Vite sospese [Sus­pend­ed lives]).

In each type of analy­sis, ’68 cor­re­sponds to a dif­fer­ent con­stel­la­tion of facts. In the field of mem­o­ry or cul­tur­al analy­sis, ’68 is, more cor­rect­ly, what makes that event a unique and par­tic­u­lar moment, an unex­pect­ed nov­el­ty. By con­trast, those who want­ed to pose the prob­lem of the polit­i­cal out­comes of ’68 have gen­er­al­ly empha­sized what the “six­ty-eighters” have become and what was born from ’68, demon­strat­ing thus the con­ti­nu­ities with what came after ’68 and the fea­tures of the (inad­e­quate) insti­tu­tion­al response.

The first type of analy­sis seems to me more help­ful in under­stand­ing what ’68 real­ly was. Indeed, there is a con­ver­gence between the con­clu­sions of Ortoleva’s essay and those derived by Luisa Passeri­ni from the tes­ti­monies she col­lect­ed. Unless I am forc­ing Ortoleva’s argu­ment some­what, it seems to me that it can be sum­ma­rized in the fol­low­ing terms. ’68 is a plan­e­tary event and can be tem­po­ral­ly delim­it­ed in the peri­od between the facts of Berke­ley in ’64 and the French May. Its nature is that of a gen­er­a­tional “move­ment” (of “youth rebel­lion”) seek­ing to be dynam­ic and open against the fix­i­ty and clo­sure of the “sys­tem” into which it refus­es to inte­grate and from which it wants to sep­a­rate; of a move­ment, born in the school, which makes knowl­edge and its trans­mis­sion the very object of crit­i­cism as a repro­duc­er of roles, inequal­i­ties, author­i­tar­i­an or sub­or­di­nate per­son­al­i­ties, atom­iza­tion; in short, a move­ment that breaks the rules by “speak­ing up” about its own con­di­tion, reject­ing its immutabil­i­ty.

Anti-author­i­tar­i­an­ism, crit­i­cism of roles, speak­ing up, egal­i­tar­i­an­ism can be seen as the most orig­i­nal fea­tures of ’68. The unin­ter­rupt­ed char­ac­ter of the move­ment, the strug­gle against oppres­sion start­ing from one­self (in the dou­ble sense of com­bat­ing the oppres­sion that one per­son­al­ly expe­ri­ences, and the oppres­sive per­son­al­i­ty with­in the self), the abil­i­ty of one’s own par­tial con­di­tion to illu­mi­nate the uni­ver­sal mech­a­nisms of pow­er, can­not but push the stu­dent strug­gles to reject any com­pro­mise; but there­fore, also to aban­don the school soon­er or lat­er. “The lega­cy of ’68,” con­cludes Ortol­e­va, “is not and can­not be an insti­tu­tion­al order […] nor an ide­ol­o­gy or a spe­cif­ic cul­ture. It is rather a field of ten­sions, at whose cen­ter is an ambiva­lence, per­haps a found­ing one, but in any case, one more pro­found, an ambiva­lence of youth rebel­lion – between uni­ver­sal­ism and par­tial­i­ty, between the irre­ducibly sub­jec­tive char­ac­ter of the demands of one’s own action and cul­ture and the pre­ten­sion of attain­ing absolute knowl­edge and results.5

It seems to me that Luisa Passeri­ni in her Group Self-por­trait also arrives at the con­clu­sion of a mirac­u­lous bal­ance between oppo­sites, in which the orig­i­nal­i­ty of ’68 would tru­ly con­sist. Where the bal­ance, the “dou­ble soul” – as it is effec­tive­ly defined – still refers here to the rela­tion-oppo­si­tion between par­tial­i­ty and uni­ver­sal­i­ty, between rec­og­niz­ing one­self as equal and val­oriz­ing the dif­fer­ences between indi­vid­ual lib­er­a­tion and the col­lec­tive move­ment. An equi­lib­ri­um which is tem­po­rary, tends to dis­solve, turn­ing into its oppo­site. “We are deal­ing with the rela­tion­ship between lib­er­a­tion and author­i­tar­i­an­ism with­in the move­ment, between the new pos­si­bil­i­ty of speak­ing for all and the dif­fer­ent weight of the words of some, thus democ­ra­cy could turn into – as it indeed did in the fol­low­ing decades – a demo­c­ra­t­ic show, the pre­ten­sion of equal­i­ty with­out rec­og­niz­ing dis­par­i­ties.”6

In this inter­pre­ta­tion, the accent is on the dis­con­ti­nu­ity of ’68 from what came lat­er; a dis­con­ti­nu­ity that often becomes a judg­ment of ’69 and then the sev­en­ties as impov­er­ished when com­pared to the rich her­itage of ’68. A judg­ment I share only in part. As will be argued, it is cer­tain­ly true that ’68 could not repro­duce itself exact­ly by exten­sion in time and space from school to soci­ety: more­over, this is my cen­tral the­sis, that the “new” equi­lib­ri­um of ’68 could not but be unsta­ble and turn into some­thing dif­fer­ent; that the affir­ma­tion of one’s right to be a sub­ject had to be put to the test of the encounter with the oth­er. In oth­er writ­ings, Luisa Passeri­ni seems to view the whole of the next decade as a break with ’68, almost a rever­sal of good into evil. “The dis­con­ti­nu­ity is pri­ma­ry,“ writes Passeri­ni in an arti­cle in Il Man­i­festo7, on many lev­els: in the rela­tion­ship between move­ment and orga­ni­za­tion, between words and polit­i­cal action, between the indi­vid­ual and the col­lec­tive.” A dis­con­ti­nu­ity so emphat­ic that it com­pels us to aban­don the ter­rain of his­tor­i­cal dis­course strict­ly speak­ing and turn to the deep­er lev­el – to be care­ful­ly han­dled – of psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic and socio-psy­cho­log­i­cal analy­sis, where a con­ti­nu­ity tra­vers­ing the “new left” at the lev­el of biog­ra­phy, even between ’68 and ter­ror­ism, can­not being denied. Thus, for exam­ple, in her intro­duc­tion to the spe­cial issue of the Riv­ista di sto­ria con­tem­po­ranea on Female iden­ti­ty and polit­i­cal vio­lence, ter­ror­ist vio­lence is dubi­ous­ly reduced to an orig­i­nat­ing ambi­gu­i­ty of ’68, between the affir­ma­tion of new moral val­ues ​​and the acceptance/reproduction of the log­ic of vio­lence and death embod­ied in the sys­tem, at first sym­bol­ic but then even more dra­mat­i­cal­ly real when the rich imag­i­na­tion of the very begin­ning is replaced by the repet­i­tive and blind imag­i­nary of armed strug­gle.8

I do not mean to deny the undoubt­ed lim­its of the ‘70s. But I believe that those lim­its – per­haps in an even more dis­con­cert­ing fash­ion – are relat­ed not so much to the retreat of the Ital­ian ’68, as if one’s own mem­o­ry were blurred, but to its unpre­dictable suc­cess, which forced it to change. A suc­cess con­sti­tut­ed by the encounter between the stu­dent ’68 and the work­ers’ ’69 and there­fore by the con­tin­u­a­tion of a rad­i­cal social con­flict in the ear­ly sev­en­ties, which once again posed the ques­tion of pow­er in unprece­dent­ed ways. What was miss­ing was the capac­i­ty and per­haps also the instru­ments (of eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal cul­ture) need­ed to deal with the high lev­el of the dis­e­qui­lib­ri­um. The strong dis­con­ti­nu­ity, of which left ter­ror­ism was the expres­sion in the sec­ond half of the sev­en­ties, can thus be seen as a poi­soned lega­cy of a sub­jec­tiv­i­ty that con­tin­ued to believe itself omnipo­tent, with­out rec­og­niz­ing and under­stand­ing how that dis­e­qui­lib­ri­um was closed off, how objec­tiv­i­ty returned deaf and dumb.

But a defeat does not ren­der the bat­tle mean­ing­less.

An Impossible Reformism

The mer­it of the argu­ments put for­ward by Migone and Tranfaglia con­sists in pos­ing the issue of the rela­tion between ’68 and the pro­longed cri­sis that fol­lowed in the Ital­ian case. In the words of Tranfaglia: “If the explo­sion of ’68 was basi­cal­ly glob­al, or at least involved Europe and Amer­i­ca, only in Italy (and in part, but with dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter­is­tics, in West Ger­many) did it trig­ger a cri­sis des­tined to last fif­teen years (assum­ing that today, as we write, it is real­ly over), to dis­play a long cycle of protests and bit­ter social con­flicts, and final­ly end in ter­ror­ism.“9 Let us put aside here this straight line some­what hasti­ly drawn between the stu­dent strug­gles and ter­ror­ism, which we do not find par­tic­u­lar­ly con­vinc­ing. Tranfaglia’s legit­i­mate ques­tion con­cerns the rea­sons for this Ital­ian pecu­liar­i­ty, what explains that anom­aly con­sti­tut­ed by what came to be known as the “May in slow motion”; and to answer this ques­tion Tranfaglia thinks it nec­es­sary to sketch an analy­sis of “the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the Ital­ian sit­u­a­tion with respect to the oth­er coun­tries of Europe and the West by which once could make a com­par­i­son.“10

Migone puts for­ward a sim­i­lar demand for atten­tion to the eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal con­text while tak­ing care to close the post-1968 peri­od in the mid­dle of the next decade: “what is com­mon­ly called ’68 mere­ly marks the begin­ning of a his­tor­i­cal phase extend­ing to the 1976 gen­er­al elec­tions where, for the first time since April 18, 1948, a pow­er struc­ture that had dom­i­nat­ed Italy for twen­ty years was rad­i­cal­ly chal­lenged.“11 The prob­lem for both his­to­ri­ans is that of a polit­i­cal his­to­ry of the sev­en­ties, which rec­og­nizes that ’68 had opened, to quote Migone, “a con­test of pow­er.”

These inten­tions, once again, can­not be gain­said. How­ev­er, the answers giv­en by both Migone and Tranfaglia are to say the least dis­ap­point­ing. For both, the pro­lon­ga­tion and lat­er entrench­ment of the Ital­ian cri­sis is the result of the inca­pac­i­ty of the rul­ing class of our coun­try to offer a reformist response to the new move­ments. Tranfaglia writes that “the Ital­ian rul­ing class failed to give an ade­quate reformist answer to the exist­ing prob­lems and those raised by the stu­dent revolt and the work­ers’ mobi­liza­tion that fol­lowed”12: no uni­ver­si­ty reform, but only lib­er­al­iza­tion of access and degree pro­grams; approval of the Labor Code, but “in a back­ward eco­nom­ic and social (but also cul­tur­al and con­ven­tion­al) con­text.“13 Hence, on the one hand, new sub­jects, the young stu­dents and work­ers, whose demands were rad­i­cal­ized by the absence of a reformist response, thus open­ing a polit­i­cal cri­sis; on the oth­er hand, the sit­u­a­tion wors­ened because from 1973 polit­i­cal cri­sis over­lapped with an inter­na­tion­al eco­nom­ic cri­sis (caused by the increase in the price of oil) and was ampli­fied by the uneven and depen­dent nature of the pre­vi­ous “eco­nom­ic mir­a­cle.”

Migone’s argu­ments are no dif­fer­ent. Some quo­ta­tions will suf­fice: “In this uni­ver­si­ty with­out Freud and Keynes, where Marx him­self is buried under a thick lay­er of philol­o­gy” the aca­d­e­mics “are unable to sat­is­fy demands for a renew­al of cul­tur­al meth­ods and con­tents with­in a struc­ture that is not only author­i­tar­i­an, but most­ly inca­pable of pro­vid­ing tools for a crit­i­cal under­stand­ing of con­tem­po­rary soci­ety”; “faced with stu­dent protest, the author­i­ties, from the gov­ern­ment to the police and judi­cial sys­tem, proved inca­pable of offer­ing a dialec­ti­cal response, or at least the kind of effec­tive com­bi­na­tion of repres­sion and reform that char­ac­ter­ized the response of oth­er, per­haps more con­ser­v­a­tive, but cer­tain­ly stronger gov­ern­ments around the world”; “above all, our rulers knew that if the virus of oppo­si­tion – mind you, not of rev­o­lu­tion – was extend­ed to oth­er social groups the lat­ter would have been less inclined to leave things as they were and go nowhere as the stu­dents had done.“ All in all, besides the stu­dents, “a vast and well-devel­oped move­ment demand­ed the real­iza­tion of an unfin­ished con­sti­tu­tion­al project, at times con­scious­ly, at times con­fus­ing a long await­ed demo­c­ra­t­ic rev­o­lu­tion with the Bol­she­vik one.”14

Why is this answer dis­ap­point­ing? First of all, because it fails to under­stand the Ital­ian ’68 prop­er: which cer­tain­ly not only did not think of itself – and in fact was not – a demand for mod­ern­iza­tion, updat­ing or “democ­ra­cy”; and the sim­i­lar­i­ty and com­mu­ni­ca­tion with oth­er “six­ty-eights” would suf­fice to prove it, as would the con­tin­u­ing rel­e­vance of the cri­tique of the role of the intel­lec­tu­al in an aca­d­e­m­ic set­ting today entire­ly devot­ed to “mod­ern“ spe­cial­ism – despite much talk about Freud, the suc­cess of a bas­tardized Keynes, the defin­i­tive shelv­ing of Marx. Sec­ond­ly, because it is inca­pable of under­stand­ing the true pecu­liar­i­ty of the “Ital­ian case”: that is, the fact that when in ’69 the work­ers do the same as the stu­dents, when anti-author­i­tar­i­an­ism becomes a strug­gle with­in and against the fac­to­ry, then a social and eco­nom­ic cri­sis breaks out that can­not be recu­per­at­ed by a reformist response pre­cise­ly because of its rad­i­cal­i­ty. Final­ly, because the judg­ment of the Ital­ian sit­u­a­tion as back­ward is not able to explain the fact that in Italy, on the con­trary, the cri­sis of the Fordist and Key­ne­sian form of post-war devel­op­ment matures ahead of oth­er advanced cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries.

The next para­graphs will endeav­or to explain some of the moments of this sit­u­a­tion, refer­ring once again to what is present or absent in the Ital­ian dis­cus­sion of ’68.

From students to workers

It is worth dwelling upon one par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion, that of Turin. The rea­son is not just to ren­der more effec­tive and con­cise an argu­ment that should cer­tain­ly be more atten­tive to dif­fer­ences. The choice of Turin as a lab­o­ra­to­ry to study the meet­ing between the stu­dent move­ment and work­ers’ strug­gles is moti­vat­ed by two con­sid­er­a­tions. The first is that in this city the lat­est char­ac­ter­is­tics of the stu­dent revolt were revealed with par­tic­u­lar clar­i­ty: this is empha­sized, and right­ly so, by both Ortol­e­va – who iden­ti­fies in Turin and Tren­to the most orig­i­nal posi­tion of the Ital­ian ’68, accord­ing to which “the exten­sion to the move­ment of soci­ety pro­ceeds from the uni­ver­sal­i­ty of mech­a­nisms of dom­i­na­tion and oppres­sion dis­cov­ered with­in the school“15 – and Passeri­ni, for whom “the con­nec­tion between speak­ing out and sub­jec­tiv­i­ty was par­tic­u­lar­ly sig­nif­i­cant“16 in Turin. The sec­ond is that in Turin – due to the vis­i­ble pre­dom­i­nance of the moment of pro­duc­tion strict­ly speak­ing, of the great fac­to­ry, of the mono­cul­ture of an indus­try that was and would long remain the dri­ving force of Ital­ian eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment – the work­ers’ con­flict would sym­bol­i­cal­ly and mate­ri­al­ly deter­mine its most sig­nif­i­cant con­se­quences.

In a speech at a recent con­fer­ence orga­nized by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Turin, Mar­co Rev­el­li pre­sent­ed us with an account of the first phase (Novem­ber 1967-Feb­ru­ary 1968) of the Turin move­ment.17 I would like to high­light some points from it, which con­firm what I said ear­li­er in the case in ques­tion. The Novem­ber occu­pa­tion trig­gers a rad­i­cal inno­va­tion in the forms of stu­dent strug­gles, already ini­ti­at­ed a few years pre­vi­ous­ly in the city at the foot of the Alps. The inno­va­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly evi­dent in the “lin­guis­tic trans­for­ma­tion” of the stu­dent move­ment, is con­sti­tut­ed by “a real and prop­er ‘Coper­ni­can rev­o­lu­tion’ regard­ing the con­cep­tion of pol­i­tics […] the prob­lem of pol­i­tics is abrupt­ly reduced to the space of the con­trol of indi­vid­u­als in their dai­ly lives.”18 The strug­gle against (aca­d­e­m­ic) pow­er thus has local and par­tic­u­lar val­ue (the oppres­sion against which one rebels is per­son­al­ly expe­ri­enced and pre­cise­ly and con­crete­ly iden­ti­fi­able) and yet also uni­ver­sal and gen­er­al (it is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a stu­dent con­di­tion, which is itself emblem­at­ic of the author­i­tar­i­an­ism implic­it in neo­cap­i­tal­ism, and not only in the lat­ter). The hier­ar­chy between the trans­for­ma­tion of struc­tures and the trans­for­ma­tion of one­self is reversed with regard to the tra­di­tion of the left: the effi­ca­cy of polit­i­cal action “is con­sid­ered pri­mar­i­ly in terms of the trans­for­ma­tion of con­scious­ness, of one’s way of life and think­ing, of one’s own auton­o­my,“19 to the point that “only through a col­lec­tive process of lib­er­a­tion can the indi­vid­ual ful­ly affirm him­self as such, can the “dam­aged” and ques­tioned I recon­struct itself autonomous­ly.“20

A posi­tion of this kind, express­ing to a large degree the moods of a good part of the stu­dent mass, found itself, per­haps inevitably, faced with the attempt to dis­cred­it it by its coun­ter­part, that is by an aca­d­e­m­ic pow­er capa­ble only of a neg­a­tive and repres­sive response. The exit from the uni­ver­si­ty there­fore appears ret­ro­spec­tive­ly as nec­es­sary step for the move­ment to main­tain itself as such.

In the Turin case, we can iden­ti­fy two great meet­ing points of the stu­dent move­ment with the “oth­ers” lucid­ly recalled by Lui­gi Bob­bio in one of the sup­ple­ments to Il Man­i­festo. Ini­tial­ly, the line of the “long march through the insti­tu­tions” seemed to pre­vail, which in Turin “trans­lat­ed into a hypoth­e­sis of encir­clement of the big fac­to­ry. The stu­dent move­ment had to avoid deal­ing direct­ly with the com­plex and lit­tle known prob­lems of the work­ing class of Fiat, but should instead have tried to extend its sub­ver­sive prac­tice to neigh­bor­ing groups (sec­ondary school stu­dents, stu­dents tak­ing evening class­es, the pro­fes­sions, etc.) which, thanks to anal­o­gous start­ing points, could have more eas­i­ly, and com­plete­ly autonomous­ly, drawn togeth­er the meth­ods and con­tents of the stu­dent strug­gle“21 How­ev­er, the line of the sup­port­ers of an inter­ven­tion among the work­ers was in the minor­i­ty. But, con­tin­ues Bob­bio, the enlarge­ment of the stu­dent move­ment to oth­er social groups turned out to be slow­er and more dif­fi­cult than expect­ed: which explains how the work­ers’ revolt at Fiat in May 1969 dras­ti­cal­ly altered the pic­ture even for the major­i­ty com­po­nent of the Turin move­ment, which was lat­er joined by numer­ous rep­re­sen­ta­tives from oth­er cities: “we had by now implic­it­ly accept­ed that we would trans­form our­selves into exter­nal avant-gardes, into full-time mil­i­tants, even though not yet (for a short peri­od of time) par­ty mil­i­tants.“22

One should say some­thing fur­ther about these work­ers’ strug­gles, which today appear as a frac­ture in the char­ac­ter of the move­ment. What enabled such rapid com­mu­ni­ca­tion between stu­dents and work­ers, so that the lat­ter, again to quote Bob­bio, saw the for­mer as “legit­i­mate inter­locu­tors”?23 And what was it, on the oth­er hand, specif­i­cal­ly about the work­ers’ con­flict that jus­ti­fied, at least in part, the re-emer­gence of the theme of orga­ni­za­tion and pol­i­tics in the tra­di­tion­al sense, side­lined in the stu­dent strug­gles of ’68? The cul­ture of the (Turin) stu­dents was not unfa­mil­iar with ref­er­ences to the work­ing class, at least when look­ing at the for­ma­tion of many mil­i­tants; I do not think I am great­ly mis­tak­en in iden­ti­fy­ing among the main sources a cer­tain Ital­ian work­erism of the six­ties (in par­tic­u­lar, Panzieri and the Quaderni Rossi) and the Frank­furt philoso­phers, direct­ly or through the the­ses of the Ger­man move­ment. To some extent, one had to break with work­erism in order to under­line the speci­fici­ty and nov­el­ty of the very strug­gle of the stu­dents; and the Frank­furt roots of the Ger­man move­ment gave a the­o­ret­i­cal gloss to the rup­ture. Bob­bio again pro­vides what seems to me a fruit­ful read­ing: Dutschke’s the­sis had an extra­or­di­nary allure, which “in our eyes con­sist­ed in propos­ing a non-hier­ar­chi­cal image of the fronts of strug­gle with­out a cen­tral and priv­i­leged sub­ject. Iden­ti­fy­ing all insti­tu­tions (from schools, to church­es, to news­pa­pers, to fac­to­ries) as places of oppres­sion and author­i­tar­i­an manip­u­la­tion not only legit­imized the autonomous role of the stu­dent move­ment (lib­er­at­ing stu­dents from the com­plex of being in a mar­gin­al posi­tion with respect to the pro­duc­tive sphere), but also autho­rized a cer­tain equiv­a­lence between the lib­er­a­tion strug­gles wher­ev­er they took place. In a soci­ety with­out a cen­ter the role of the par­ty did not seem at all indis­pens­able.“24

How­ev­er, with the work­ers’ ’69 things went in the oppo­site direc­tion: the redis­cov­ery of a cen­ter, with the work­ers’ strug­gles, lead­ing the “groups” to re-eval­u­ate orga­ni­za­tion and the par­ty.

The rediscovery of the center

Exam­ined more close­ly, the encounter between the stu­dents and the autonomous strug­gles of the work­ers inside the fac­to­ry does not seem explic­a­ble by any greater ade­qua­cy of the dom­i­nant ways of think­ing in the stu­dent move­ments of the oth­er cities com­pared to that typ­i­cal of Turin. The ambigu­ous role of stu­dents as a labor force in for­ma­tion – a the­sis wide­spread in Pisa – does not seem to have played a very sig­nif­i­cant role: a labor force which, as Rossan­da apt­ly point­ed out, far from being func­tion­al to eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment would soon be revealed super­flu­ous to it. Nor does it seem that the uni­ver­si­ty strug­gles rep­re­sent a mere nega­tion by the stu­dents of their own intel­lec­tu­al con­di­tion in some way anal­o­gous to the “refusal of work” which, accord­ing to cur­so­ry work­erist read­ings, had char­ac­ter­ized the strug­gle in the fac­to­ries of the six­ties.

I believe the oppo­site is truer: that the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the work­ers’ strug­gles of ’69 show, where least expect­ed, the far­sight­ed­ness of the the­ses of the Turin move­ment. That is, I believe that the nov­el­ty of ’69 is giv­en by the fact that the work­ers “behaved like the stu­dents.” I take one of many pos­si­ble exam­ples from an arti­cle pub­lished, as I write, in Il Man­i­festo. This is the text of an inter­view with some work­ers dur­ing the hot autumn of ’69, nev­er pub­lished by the Cor­riere del­la Sera, and now made avail­able by Pino Fer­raris from his archives. One of the work­ers says: “I want to explain the deci­sive moments of these strug­gles: the wild­cat strikes, the strug­gle over the col­lec­tive agree­ment that Fiat tried to stop by lay­ing off 30,000 work­ers. The boss thinks he can buy a work­er with the salary just as he would buy a kilo of apples. You sell your­self and I pay you. Then I use you just as I want. An apple can be sliced, cooked, left to rot […] or eat­en. The fate of the com­mod­i­ty is in fact that of being con­sumed […] But the work­er is a rather spe­cial com­mod­i­ty, it is not enough to sell him­self at a good price, he does not want to let him­self be con­sumed by the boss­es […] he is a com­mod­i­ty that wants to have the pow­er to con­trol the man­ner of its con­sump­tion every day, this is why we are strug­gling at and over work for work­ers’ con­trol.“25

Anti-author­i­tar­i­an­ism, auton­o­my, con­trol of one’s own des­tiny, refusal to accept a con­di­tion pre­sent­ed as unchange­able, pol­i­tics as a strug­gle for self-deter­mi­na­tion and the widen­ing of the spaces of con­crete free­dom in one’s own life: all char­ac­ter­is­tics found in this as in oth­er tes­ti­monies26; and they con­tra­dict both read­ings of the Marx­ist-Lenin­ist type then gain­ing in strength, with the recov­ery of the essen­tial role of the exter­nal avant-garde to “politi­cize” mere­ly trade union­ist spon­ta­neous strug­gles, and the wide­spread work­erist inter­pre­ta­tions for which the work­ers’ strug­gles were “irrec­on­cil­able” strug­gles for an income sep­a­rat­ed from labor.

Still, there is some­thing more to the above words. There is pre­cise­ly the recov­ery, as if with cap­tions pro­vid­ed, of the very heart of Marx’s labor the­o­ry of val­ue, beyond all the mech­a­nis­tic encrus­ta­tions that final­ly (and right­ly) con­signed it to obliv­ion. Name­ly, there is the idea that in cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety there is real­ly a cen­ter con­sti­tut­ed by the pro­duc­tion of com­modi­ties aimed at a prof­it; and that this prof­it has no oth­er motive than sur­plus labor, con­sti­tut­ed by the dif­fer­ence between the exchange val­ue (quan­ti­ty of labor objec­ti­fied in the com­modi­ties pur­chased by the salary) and the use val­ue (labor per­formed). The auton­o­my of the use val­ue of labor-pow­er from the move­ments of cap­i­tal – which is the essence of ’69 – refers to the pecu­liar char­ac­ter­is­tic of this com­mod­i­ty so dif­fer­ent from the oth­ers, that is, to the fact that in this case – unlike pre­cise­ly the apple referred to by the inter­viewed work­er – the sep­a­ra­tion of the com­mod­i­ty sold (labor capac­i­ty) from the con­crete indi­vid­ual is impos­si­ble. Redis­cov­ery of the real worker’s motives against a pro­duc­tive sys­tem that instead reduces per­sons to cogs in a machine – this was the “work­ers’ cen­tral­i­ty” of the time. A cen­tral­i­ty that – incar­nat­ed in rad­i­cal strug­gles capa­ble of spread­ing and mul­ti­ply­ing every­where – showed itself not as the reflec­tion but the nega­tion of the cen­tral­i­ty of the fac­to­ry, typ­i­cal of the indus­tri­al­ist cul­ture of both left and right.

It is per­haps no coin­ci­dence that these years wit­nessed a renewed inter­est, with­in and beyond eco­nom­ics, towards Marx­i­an the­o­ry. In par­tic­u­lar, val­ue the­o­ry could now present a new vis­age, a the­o­ry of social cri­sis capa­ble of explain­ing in large part the block­age of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion. Clau­dio Napoleoni, an econ­o­mist who explained well this rela­tion between the the­o­ret­i­cal prob­lema­ti­za­tion of the basic cat­e­gories of Marx’s dis­course and their cre­ative use to inter­pret the Ital­ian sit­u­a­tion, wrote in 1973: “the work­ers’ strug­gle appeared in such a form that it was nei­ther sim­ply redis­trib­u­tive nor mere­ly nor­ma­tive, but became polit­i­cal in a nar­row­er sense in that it often pro­found­ly weak­ened one of the con­di­tions nec­es­sary for the real­iza­tion of the cap­i­tal­ist rela­tion, name­ly the sub­or­di­na­tion, the lack of auton­o­my of the work­ing class with­in the process of pro­duc­tion […] the eco­nom­ic and social cri­sis is essen­tial­ly due to this work­ers thrust in the sense that the process of accu­mu­la­tion, already hit by the suc­cess­es at the begin­ning of the six­ties on the ter­rain of dis­tri­b­u­tion, was lat­er hit even hard­er by that con­quest of work­ers’ auton­o­my which has severe­ly lim­it­ed the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a cap­i­tal­ist response in tra­di­tion­al terms, that is in terms of an increase in the degree of exploita­tion.“27 An eco­nom­ic cri­sis pre­cise­ly because it is a social cri­sis: a cri­sis that by its very nature went beyond any pos­si­ble reformism.

The cul­ture of the pro­tag­o­nists of the strug­gles of those years, which soon crys­tal­lized into the “New” Left, was able to join with and span the growth and mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of the move­ments from ’69 to ’72; but it did not know how to relate the antag­o­nis­tic rad­i­cal­ism of the strug­gles, above all the work­ers’ strug­gle, to an analy­sis of the cri­sis. It was there­fore forced to oscil­late between reg­is­ter­ing strug­gles – whether real or imag­i­nary it mat­ters lit­tle now – always seen as rad­i­cal and vic­to­ri­ous, and denounc­ing a cap­i­tal­ist or insti­tu­tion­al reac­tion inter­pret­ed through the reduc­tive lens of “con­spir­a­cy.” Fol­low­ing the argu­ment I have pre­sent­ed, things were very dif­fer­ent: the strug­gles were real­ly able to affect vital nodes of pow­er rela­tions with­in the fac­to­ries and with­out; pre­cise­ly because of this they gave rise to a cri­sis of accu­mu­la­tion that, in the absence of a “polit­i­cal out­let,” would soon­er or lat­er give rise to a reac­tion of the sys­tem, tak­ing the form of infla­tion, decen­tral­iza­tion, restruc­tur­ing.28

As antic­i­pat­ed, these con­sid­er­a­tions lead me to a judg­ment very dif­fer­ent from the one dom­i­nant today. The lim­its of the first half of the sev­en­ties – rad­i­cal­ism up to ’73, and the politi­cism of the par­ties of the next three years – can­not sim­ply be first attrib­uted to an over­es­ti­ma­tion of the force of the con­flict, and then to an orga­ni­za­tion­al regres­sion. In fact, the struc­tur­al cri­sis of cap­i­tal­ism, in which the social strug­gles had been con­cen­trat­ed, would have required a cul­ture capa­ble of inter­pret­ing and attack­ing the rela­tion labor-val­oriza­tion-cri­sis-restruc­tur­ing. A cul­ture that was lack­ing, and that cer­tain­ly did not exist with­in ’68. Frank­furt cul­ture hard­ly sat­is­fied these needs. But even work­erism, which had more­over redis­cov­ered in work­ers’ antag­o­nism the only irrec­on­cil­able con­tra­dic­tion of cap­i­tal­ism, had with Tron­ti made it the ori­gin of a con­tin­u­ous cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment induced by strug­gles; or, by con­trast, with Panzieri, the cause of the final col­lapse of cap­i­tal­ism, buried by the mass-work­er, read as the last of the fig­ures assumed by Marx­i­an abstract labor.

The con­se­quence was that between ’72 and ’73 the “groups,” which gath­ered what was left of the old stu­dent move­ment, faced with a rad­i­cal­ly changed sit­u­a­tion also due to their own actions, end­ed up turn­ing to the (poor) incom­plete eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal cul­ture of the left. There­by they replaced the cri­tique of the impe­ri­al­ism and “waste“ of the Unit­ed States that could be derived from Baran and Sweezy’s Monop­oly Cap­i­tal, which sum­ma­rized the eco­nom­ic knowl­edge of ’68, with a bit of some­thing like break­down the­o­ry from ortho­dox Marx­ism, or a bit of con­flict the­o­ry from left Key­ne­sian­ism and neori­car­dian­ism. And as far as polit­i­cal cul­ture was con­cerned, their choice was even worse, pick­ing up once more a lot of the para­pher­na­lia of the Third Inter­na­tion­al. But, if what I have said is plau­si­ble, the prob­lem is nei­ther the rad­i­cal­ism of the ear­ly sev­en­ties, nor the pos­ing of the ques­tion of pow­er, but rather the inca­pac­i­ty of the whole left, “old” and “new,” to respond to the eco­nom­ic and insti­tu­tion­al inno­va­tions with which the “sys­tem” respond­ed to the cri­sis and dis­rupt­ed the move­ments.

Instead of a conclusion

A trace of this prob­lem­at­ic can be found in recent writ­ings on ’68. In his book Pep­pino Ortol­e­va advances the the­sis that an ambi­tious project may be dis­cerned in the writ­ings of many of the mem­bers of the stu­dent move­ment: “a project of cri­tique of the social sci­ences par­al­lel to the Marx­i­an cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­o­my, a sci­ence of rev­o­lu­tion ade­quate to the char­ac­ter­is­tics of late cap­i­tal­ism where dom­i­na­tion is no longer cen­tered on eco­nom­ic struc­tures but tra­vers­es the whole of soci­ety. A cri­tique of the social sci­ences that was sup­posed to ‘go beyond’ the Frank­furt school by trans­lat­ing the latter’s the­o­ret­i­cal insights into rev­o­lu­tion­ary polit­i­cal prac­tice; to reunite knowl­edge start­ing from the fun­da­men­tal uni­ty of the social struc­ture and its oppres­sive mech­a­nisms which were simul­ta­ne­ous­ly social, psy­cho­log­i­cal, eco­nom­ic and cul­tur­al; to trans­late that knowl­edge into a prac­tice of lib­er­a­tion.” A project whose aban­don­ment, accord­ing to Ortol­e­va, was deter­mined “by the demands of a mass move­ment of total­ly unpre­dictable dimen­sions and pow­er, by the process trig­gered through­out the world by the mod­el of the French May, which re-pro­posed a tra­di­tion­al image of the rev­o­lu­tion, and favored a return to the cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­o­my as a fun­da­men­tal sci­ence of soci­ety.“29 A posi­tion that, as we saw on the basis of the argu­ments of Lui­gi Bob­bio, guid­ed the choic­es of the Turin move­ment dur­ing a cer­tain peri­od.

Anoth­er sug­ges­tive line of argu­ment is pro­posed by Gui­do Viale in the most recent sup­ple­ment to Il Man­i­festo on ’68, when he writes that the cul­tur­al hori­zon com­mon to the dif­fer­ent move­ments that fol­lowed between ’68 and the ear­ly sev­en­ties was “the social approach to the prob­lems of man in the world” and “the irrup­tion of every­day life in the polit­i­cal strug­gle,” which were lat­er sharp­ened in the analy­sis of roles, the sanc­tions that struc­tured them and the forms of con­sen­sus that tend­ed to repro­duce them. “This approach had tak­en the move­ment – the move­ments – quite far: well beyond the sphere of a par­tic­u­lar insti­tu­tion – the uni­ver­si­ty: to those who were back then called in the pro­fes­sion­al world ‘tech­ni­cians,’ to the admin­is­tra­tors of jus­tice and social ser­vices and their pre­des­tined vic­tims.“30) But above all, “the same type of approach, applied by the pro­tag­o­nists of fac­to­ry strug­gles to their own lived expe­ri­ence, would endow the con­cept of the work­ing class with a depth and rich­ness of con­tent which is the very sub­stance of the ‘speak­ing up’ rep­re­sent­ed by the ‘hot autumn’ and that ‘work­ers’ cen­tral­i­ty’ span­ning the length of the ‘70s.”31 This cen­tral­i­ty, Viale con­cludes, expired “when the explo­sive charge unleashed by its ‘self-analy­sis’ exhaust­ed itself.”32

The two quotes com­ple­ment and cor­rect each oth­er nice­ly, show­ing the wealth and lim­its of the long wave of ’68; more­over, they allow me to sum­ma­rize my argu­ment and bet­ter iden­ti­fy the prob­lem­at­ic that it lim­its itself to defin­ing. The pas­sage from the cri­tique of soci­ety to the cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­o­my has as its pri­ma­ry cause the emer­gence of a work­ers’ cen­tral­i­ty which indeed has the char­ac­ter­is­tics Viale attrib­ut­es to it. For this rea­son, far from sig­ni­fy­ing the step back­wards allud­ed to by Ortol­e­va, it con­sti­tutes an unex­pect­ed but pow­er­ful rede­f­i­n­i­tion of the cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­o­my as the cri­tique of soci­ety.

At the lev­el of social struc­ture, the Ital­ian case showed in a sharp­er form a char­ac­ter­is­tic prop­er to the Fordist and Key­ne­sian devel­op­ment mod­el as such, name­ly the mod­el­ing of social and insti­tu­tion­al behav­iors on fac­to­ry ‘ratio­nal­i­ty’. A mod­el rec­on­cil­ing an increase in the pro­duc­tion of com­modi­ties with its exten­sion to activ­i­ties oth­er than fac­to­ry work thanks to pres­sure on the work­ing class. Fac­to­ry work was thus more and more cen­tral both because it sup­port­ed an ever more com­plex artic­u­la­tion of soci­ety and because it became the mod­el for the oth­er forms of activ­i­ty. A cen­tral­i­ty of fac­to­ry work which, how­ev­er, began to be accom­pa­nied by the reduc­tion of its rel­a­tive weight.

The modes of exten­sion of the fac­to­ry log­ic in a total mass soci­ety and the role of the stu­dent con­di­tion in this con­text deserve fur­ther com­ment. The social envi­ron­ment per­me­at­ed by Fordism pro­gres­sive­ly reveals itself, under the façade of well-being and free­dom, as an envi­ron­ment in which the indi­vid­ual has less and less pos­si­bil­i­ties to choose and is sub­ject to a sub­tle but no less despot­ic con­trol. A fas­ci­nat­ing book by Bruno Bet­tel­heim, The Informed Heart, pub­lished in 1960, seems to me to per­fect­ly exem­pli­fy the anx­i­ety increas­ing at the time: against any com­pla­cen­cy, it shows that there is a dis­turb­ing par­al­lelism between the expe­ri­ence of the Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps and the tech­no­log­i­cal, con­sumerist and afflu­ent soci­ety of post-WWII cap­i­tal­ism.

In both cas­es man him­self appears to reduce him­self to a means, sub­ju­gat­ed, devoid of self-respect: inca­pable of auton­o­my, dis­in­te­grat­ed with­in, sub­ject to ever more rig­or­ous exter­nal con­trols.

Bruno Bon­gio­van­ni con­ve­nient­ly draws our atten­tion to the 1966 sit­u­a­tion­ist pam­phlet, On the Pover­ty of Stu­dent Life, which illus­trates the speci­fici­ty of the stu­dent con­di­tion in mass soci­ety. Accord­ing to Bon­gio­van­ni, the doc­u­ment claims that “the stu­dent, thus ren­dered irre­spon­si­ble and docile, is placed in a con­di­tion of minor­i­ty: in exchange for the promise of a pos­si­ble future co-opta­tion into the rul­ing class or at least the expand­ing ser­vice sec­tor, he finds him­self sub­ject­ed to the dual author­i­ty of the fam­i­ly and pub­lic insti­tu­tions […] How­ev­er the stu­dent is, accord­ing to the authors of the pam­phlet, in a sub­or­di­nat­ed posi­tion but enjoys as both bur­den and bless­ing a rel­a­tive crit­i­cal capac­i­ty and above all free time, which makes the ‘sys­tem’ appear to him as a source of alien­ation, and the ‘total­i­ty’ as a false total­i­ty.“34

The par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion of the stu­dent reveals a uni­ver­sal con­di­tion, an arbi­trary yet objec­tive social author­i­tar­i­an­ism which the more it extends from the fac­to­ry to sub­jects of uncer­tain soci­o­log­i­cal sta­tus the more it los­es legit­i­ma­cy and pro­vokes revolt. Here the stu­dent strug­gle finds the rea­son for its expan­sion first to soci­ety and then to the fac­to­ry, revers­ing the path of Fordist ratio­nal­i­ty.

This eco­nom­ic and social sys­tem proved itself vul­ner­a­ble to insub­or­di­na­tion, espe­cial­ly when revolt end­ed up affect­ing the nodal point of the rate of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. The most con­vinc­ing ana­lyzes of the glob­al eco­nom­ic insta­bil­i­ty from the mid-six­ties onwards have in fact iden­ti­fied its most pro­found cause in a rup­ture of that implic­it pact between cap­i­tal and labor on which post-war devel­op­ment was found­ed: a pact that pro­vid­ed labor with gains in the field of con­sump­tion and cap­i­tal with gains in the field of pro­duc­tion. Also, from this point of view, the Ital­ian case appears not so much back­ward as antic­i­pa­to­ry. The cri­sis of the ear­ly six­ties gave rise to a sequence of infla­tion and defla­tion, which led to a freeze in invest­ments; the sub­se­quent increase in pro­duc­tion was almost entire­ly due to an increase in labor inten­si­ty which made trans­par­ent and intol­er­a­ble the rela­tion between the despo­tism of fac­to­ry com­mand and the quan­ti­ty of pro­duc­tion. In “’69” labor time would become the site of direct con­flict.

In this con­text, the hot autumn had more than else­where a dev­as­tat­ing effect on equi­lib­ri­um in fac­to­ry and soci­ety. It had dev­as­tat­ing effects because, as I have already said, in Italy more than else­where the cri­sis in pro­duc­tion was the result of a social cri­sis. A soci­etal cri­tique of pow­er end­ed with the rad­i­cal­iza­tion of the strug­gle against exploita­tion. It was not the inter­nal cri­sis of a mech­a­nism: on the con­trary, the very tech­ni­cal-orga­ni­za­tion­al struc­ture of the cap­i­tal­ist fac­to­ry was rec­og­nized as social­ly con­di­tioned; indus­try showed itself depen­dent on class rela­tions; and the class rela­tion, which per­me­at­ed soci­ety as a whole, revealed itself to be sen­si­tive to its move­ments. Con­se­quent­ly, the cri­sis of the ear­ly sev­en­ties was not a phe­nom­e­non that could be under­stood by resort­ing to the sep­a­rate instru­ments of eco­nom­ic sci­ence or soci­o­log­i­cal sci­ence, as dif­fer­ent but com­ple­men­tary points of view. An addi­tion of spe­cialisms was not enough. Instead, a social sci­ence was required that took for its object the rela­tion between the objec­tive and sub­jec­tive, between tech­ni­cal rela­tions and class rela­tions, between econ­o­my and soci­ety. Which, there­fore, was not lim­it­ed to the the­o­ret­i­cal nega­tion of the pri­ma­cy of the econ­o­my over social life, but in real­i­ty con­struct­ed a soci­ety with­out a cen­ter. In fact, a cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­o­my that turned the work­ers’ “cen­tral­i­ty” into its prac­ti­cal lever.

Even this pro­pos­al, no less ambi­tious than the oth­er, failed: per­haps because, although con­vey­ing quite well what was at stake in those years, it was per­ceived only con­fus­ed­ly. It is under­stand­able that the “six­ty-eighters” con­serve no mem­o­ry of it: though I con­fess that I am trou­bled by Viale’s expla­na­tion that work­ers’ cen­tral­i­ty van­ished because the explo­sive charge of work­ers’ self-analy­sis of work­ers was exhaust­ed. I sus­pect that at stake were objec­tive changes rather than an inter­nal exhaus­tion of the work­ers’ thrust; in par­tic­u­lar a trans­for­ma­tion of the fac­to­ry which redesigned the map of sub­jec­tiv­i­ties present there. In a world built accord­ing to busi­ness ratio­nal­i­ty, a soci­ety in motion had tra­versed the places of work­ers’ labor, enter­ing and trans­form­ing them through­out the sev­en­ties. How­ev­er, inno­va­tion has sev­ered or at least made more com­plex the rela­tion between con­trol exer­cised imper­son­al­ly by the machine sys­tem on the per­for­mance of work and the direct and per­son­al con­trol of the fac­to­ry hier­ar­chy over work­ers – the rela­tion con­sti­tu­tive of the orga­ni­za­tion of the Fordist fac­to­ry, and which accounts for the extreme effec­tive­ness of the insub­or­di­na­tion of the mass work­er of ’68, but is today unfea­si­ble. In the mean­time, soci­ety has also changed: super­im­posed on the fusion of inte­gra­tion and sanc­tions con­sti­tut­ed by rigid “roles” is a post­mod­ern and flex­i­ble mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of iden­ti­ties that indi­vid­u­als can adopt out­side of work. Thus, fac­to­ry and soci­ety, work­ers and move­ments have sep­a­rat­ed.

The lega­cy of ’68 seems to me inex­tri­ca­bly linked to all this. For this rea­son, what is writ­ten about it seems to me use­ful, indeed essen­tial: but nev­er­the­less par­tial. One can only write the his­to­ry of the Ital­ian ’68 if one also writes the his­to­ry of the sev­en­ties; and its mem­o­ry can only be made whole if the com­mu­ni­ty formed in the strug­gles and occu­pa­tions of the time is able to revis­it the vic­to­ries and defeats it met out­side the uni­ver­si­ties and over which it divid­ed.

— Trans­lat­ed by Tijana Okić


  1. This text first appeared in print under a dif­fer­ent title – “Crit­i­ca del­la soci­età e crit­i­ca dell’economia. Domande e appun­ti su una assen­za negli scrit­ti sul ‘ses­san­tot­to’, vent’anni dopo” [“Cri­tique of Soci­ety and Cri­tique of Econ­o­my: Ques­tions and Notes on an Absence in the Writ­ings on ’68, Twen­ty Years Lat­er”]. Full cita­tion in foot­note 4, below. 

  2. Ric­car­do Bellofiore, “L’operaismo degli anni ’60 e la crit­i­ca dell’economia polit­i­ca,” in Unità pro­le­taria, n. 1-2 (1982). An Eng­lish trans­la­tion is forth­com­ing by Steve Wright. 

  3. Translator’s Note: Pub­lished in 1967 by Don Loren­zo Milani, a dis­si­dent Catholic priest, and writ­ten by stu­dents from the school of Bar­bi­ana in the vil­lage of Vic­chio Mugel­lo, north of Flo­rence, Let­tera a una pro­fes­sores­sa doc­u­ment­ed the class bias of the edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem and the tri­umph of indi­vid­u­al­ism in post-war Italy. In Eng­lish, see School­boys of Bar­bi­ana, Let­ter to a Teacher, trans. Nora Rossi and Tom Cole (New York: Vin­tage, 1971). 

  4. Writ­ten in March 1989, and pub­lished in 1990 in Pier Pao­lo Pog­gio, ed., Il Ses­san­tot­to: l’evento e la sto­ria (Bres­cia: Fon­dazione Lui­gi Michelet­ti, 1990), 155–69. Lau­ra Derossi, Maria Tere­sa Fenoglio, Luisa Passeri­ni, and Mar­co Rev­el­li are not respon­si­ble for the the­sis argued in this paper, how­ev­er I would like thank them for dis­cussing the top­ics dealt with here with me. 

  5. Pep­pino Ortol­e­va, Sag­gio sui movi­men­ti del 1968 in Europa e in Amer­i­ca. Con un’antologia di mate­ri­ali e doc­u­men­ti (Rome: Edi­tori Riu­ni­ti, 1988), 201. 

  6. Luisa Passeri­ni, Autori­trat­to di grup­po (Flo­rence: Giun­ti, 1988), 94. 

  7. Luisa Passeri­ni, “Memo­ria del tesoro per­du­to,“ Il Man­i­festo, Sep­tem­ber 9, 1988. 

  8. Ferite del­la memo­ria. Immag­i­nario e ide­olo­gia in una sto­ria recente,” in Riv­ista di sto­ria con­tem­po­ranea, no. 2 (1988): 173–217. Passerini’s con­clu­sion in these writ­ings have at least the mer­it of fac­ing the ques­tion of what the mem­o­ry of the pro­tag­o­nists eas­i­ly puts aside. See, for exam­ple, in Group self-por­trait, the fol­low­ing argu­ment: “Most of the time, mem­o­ry does not know or does not wish to stop to under­stand a series of rever­sals: from the refusal of pol­i­tics as a pro­fes­sion to the accep­tance of an offi­cial posi­tion; from the denial of the role of the van­guard in the con­struc­tion of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary par­ty, from the mock­ery of the lega­cy of the thought and expe­ri­ence of the work­ers’ move­ment to their adop­tion in an unin­ten­tion­al­ly com­ic man­ner with a pro­lif­er­a­tion of orga­ni­za­tion­al struc­tures such as cen­tral com­mit­tees, con­trol com­mis­sions, exec­u­tives, cadre schools” (179). In the book, how­ev­er, she offers a more bal­anced and con­vinc­ing judg­ment than in lat­er writ­ings: “the groups posed in a crude, anachro­nis­tic and author­i­tar­i­an way the prob­lem of what goes beyond the every­day. They empha­sized it a one-sided man­ner, but evad­ing it leaves a void that can be denied only at a cost yet to be deter­mined” Passeri­ni, Autori­trat­to di grup­po, 186. 

  9. Nico­la Tranfaglia, “Per­cor­si del ter­ror­is­mo. Il ’68, i ‘grup­pi’ e la crisi degli anni set­tan­ta,” in Diego Nov­el­li and Nico­la Tranfaglia, Vite sospese (Milan: Garzan­ti, 1988), 15–16. 

  10. Ibid. 

  11. Gian Gia­co­mo Migone, “Il caso ital­iano e il con­testo inter­nazionale,” mimeo­graphed paper giv­en at the con­fer­ence Le cul­ture e i luoghi del ’68, Turin, Novem­ber 3–5, 1988. 

  12. Tranfaglia, Vita sospese, 23. 

  13. Ibid. 

  14. Migone,“Il caso ital­iano.” 

  15. Ortol­e­va, Sag­gio sui movi­men­ti del 1968 in Europa e in Amer­i­ca. Con un’antologia di mate­ri­ali e doc­u­men­ti, 72. 

  16. Passeri­ni, Autori­trat­to di grup­po, 90. 

  17. Mar­co Rev­el­li, mimeo­graphed paper 

  18. Ibid., 25. 

  19. Ibid., 31. 

  20. Ibid., 40. 

  21. Lui­gi Bob­bio, “Pri­ma di Lot­ta Con­tin­ua: Da Palaz­zo Cam­pana il salto nel­la soci­età sen­za cen­tro,” in “Il Man­i­festo 1968,” Octo­ber 1988, 21. 

  22. Ibid. 

  23. Ibid. 

  24. Ibid. 

  25. Le parole scom­parse degli operai,” in Il Man­i­festo, March 2, 1988. 

  26. See, for exam­ple, Lau­ra Derossi who right­ly recalls “the role played by Lot­ta Con­tin­ua in the devel­op­ment of work­ers’ strug­gles from ’69 to the ear­ly sev­en­ties and in par­tic­u­lar in affirm­ing a worker’s iden­ti­ty not sub­or­di­nat­ed to the con­straints of their role in the pro­duc­tion process, but rather defined on the basis of the right to auton­o­my, cul­tur­al dig­ni­ty and the con­quest of spaces of expres­sion and par­tic­i­pa­tion in soci­ety as a whole” (“Le parole e le pietre,” Il Man­i­festo, Sep­tem­ber 1, 1988). Derossi goes on to define a “myth” of “work­ers’ cen­tral­i­ty”: a “male” myth which “helped to cre­ate iden­ti­ties sep­a­rate from the social fab­ric that believed them­selves pow­er­ful.” This obser­va­tion is not ground­less: above all in the sec­ond half of the sev­en­ties when the “work­ers’ cen­tral­i­ty” ceased to be crit­i­cal of pro­duc­tion and the pri­ma­cy of the “eco­nom­ic” first in the fac­to­ry and then in soci­ety and became a hier­ar­chi­cal vision of the move­ments. I have dealt with this in more detail in Ric­car­do Bellofiore, “Il rosso, il rosa e il verde: Cen­tral­ità opera­ia e nuovi movi­men­ti,” in “Quaderni del Cric,” Novem­ber 1988. 

  27. Domande e risposte sul nos­tro gior­nale che com­in­cia oggi il suo ter­zo anno di vita.” La rispos­ta di Clau­dio Napoleoni, in “Il Man­i­festo,” April 28, 1973. 

  28. It is worth not­ing that from this point of view the argu­ment of Ciafaloni and Dono­lo, from an inter­ven­tion pub­lished in July 1969, accord­ing to which “the move­ment has not caused changes in the struc­ture of pow­er, has not gained real (much less insti­tu­tion­al) pow­er in indi­vid­ual orga­ni­za­tions and struc­tures, nor more gen­er­al­ly mod­i­fied class rela­tions” (“Con­tro la fal­sa coscien­za nel movi­men­to stu­den­tesco,” in Quaderni Pia­cen­ti­ni 38, tak­en from Quaderni Pia­cen­ti­ni: Antolo­gia, 1968-1972 (Gul­liv­er: Milan, 1978), 213) – quot­ed favor­ably by both Migone and Tranfaglia in sup­port of their the­sis – proved to be untime­ly at least as regards the last point. The arti­cle deserves to be read again today, but for oth­er rea­sons. 

  29. Ortol­e­va, Sag­gio sui movi­men­ti del 1968 in Europa e in Amer­i­ca. Con un’antologia di mate­ri­ali e doc­u­men­ti, 100. 

  30. Gui­do Viale, “Assente è il pre­sente: I fili recisi che osta­colano la ricostruzione stor­i­ca,” in “Il Man­i­festo 1968,” Decem­ber 1988, 12. 

  31. Ibid. 

  32. Ibid. 

  33. The book, whose sub­ti­tle is Indi­vid­ual auton­o­my and mass soci­ety, was recent­ly repub­lished by Adel­phi. The first Ital­ian edi­tion of 1965 had a dif­fer­ent title to the orig­i­nal, name­ly The Price of Life, which has now been cor­rect­ed. 

  34. Bruno Bon­gio­van­ni, “Soci­età di mas­sa, mon­do gio­vanile e crisi di val­ori: La con­tes­tazione del ’68,“ in La sto­ria: I gran­di prob­le­mi dal Medio­e­vo all’Età Con­tem­po­ranea, Vol. VII, L’Età Con­tem­po­ranea, Vol. II, La cul­tura (Turin: Utet, 1988. 

Author of the article

is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Bergamo, Italy. He was a collaborator of the journals Quaderni Piacentini and Primo Maggio in the '80s. He participated in Seminar on Money (1981-5) chaired by Augusto Graziani, a major proponent of circuit theory, the idea that the economic process is a circular sequence of monetary flows; in his writings, Bellofiore has sought to demonstrate that the Marxian labour theory of value can be set out in terms of the monetary circuit model. As a member of the International Symposium on Marxian Theory, he has contributed to the international revival of critical research into Marx's critique of political economy, co-editing the following proceedings: The Constitution of Capital. Essays on Volume I of Capital (2004), Re-reading Marx: New perspectives after the critical edition (2009), In Marx’s Laboratory: Critical Interpretations of the Grundrisse (2013). He has also edited: Marxian Economics: A Reappraisal, Essays on Vol. III of Capital (2 vols, 1998); Rosa Luxemburg and the Critique of Political Economy (2009).