The Autonomy of the Political (1972)

Richard Diebenkorn, Large Bright Blue, 1980.

The materials below, from 1972, are accompanied by a new introduction written by Andrew Anastasi and Matteo Mandarini, also on Viewpoint.

Introductory Presentation

Tronti: I have chosen this subject, from among the many objects of study in this research project, not because it generally should be privileged over others. Rather, I selected it because it seems to me to be a subject that requires an urgent, close examination at this particular moment. The subject in question goes by the name of “the autonomy of the political.” It must immediately be said that this is an expression, a definition, that is prevalent in contemporary political studies; but it is one which turns out to be new, and even a little strange, within what we might call the Marxist field overall. Especially since, here, it is not a matter of the autonomy of one part of power with respect to other parts; rather, it is a matter of the autonomy of all power with respect to what is not power – let’s say, with respect to the rest of society. Therefore, the autonomy of power with respect to what is – or better, to what was, or was generally considered to be – the foundation of power.

Now, it must immediately be said that, in the tradition of so-called revolutionary Marxism, the rejection of this autonomy was univocal. In other words, it was unambiguous; the relation between political power and the rest of society – let’s say, to put it simply, between state and economy – was unambiguous. It is also true, however, that this relation then changed historically, over the course of the very history of capitalist society, without Marxist thought attending to these changes. The result of this has been that the concept of the autonomy of the political has been appropriated by a section of the workers’ movement with specific politics, by that section which generally is defined as the “right-wing revisionism” of social democracy. Now we must see whether, despite this appropriation of the concept, there is some element of this problem worth saving. In order to do so, we should not be afraid of our side possibly also using this same concept, especially in a discussion such as this one, to possibly revise the Marxian conceptual apparatus “from the left.” This is what I have to say regarding the topic of “autonomy.”

Yet the very term “political,” “the political,” is equally unusual in the Marxist tradition. This is because we are introducing not only a new name, but also, I would say, a new category into our discourse. What does this category contain within it? It contains, on the one hand, the objective level of the institutions of political power, and on the other hand, the political stratum [ceto politico], that is, the subjective activity of doing politics. The political holds together two things: the state plus the political class [classe politica]. What relationship does this term, this conceptualization, have to the “social,” to the rest of society? Here, we must immediately caution that this research and the problem underlying it extend well beyond the Italian capitalism of the sixties, even if it was here where the spark of interest in this problem was able to emerge. The fact is that, having arrived at an advanced stage of capitalism, we noticed one thing above all, one thing in particular that we will need to discuss, in order to determine whether it is accurate, whether it is correct or not. We noticed that the political, as it is generally said, using technical jargon, is delayed [ritarda]. If we go deeper, we notice that this delay, of the political with respect to the social, does not derive, does not always derive from an incomplete – economic and social – development of capital. The cause of this delay does not always lie in an insufficient development of capital. Sometimes it is a delay in itself. In other words, it is a delay in the adaptation of the state machine, and the reasons for this, its causes, lie in the very functioning of this machine: the asynchrony between the political and the social, the different rhythm of development between them, turns out to be undeniable today, both at first glance and after a purely empirical analysis. However, the explanation currently given for this is, in my opinion, unsatisfactory. Very often the explanation for this delay involves a simplification of a historical-materialist type, so to speak. In this perspective, everything that happens at a certain level, at the so-called higher level, is based on what lies below, at the lower level – based on the invisible hand, one could say, of the so-called structural levels. It is, on one side, a convenient explanation, because it is easy to understand and to use; on the other side, from the point of view of research and practical intervention, it is paralyzing. We must learn, for the moment, within the framework of this discussion, to try to do without this explanation. Let’s consider, for instance, the nature of this so-called delay of the political. And let’s then consider that in the political sphere, in what is generally called the political sphere, there is insufficient rationalization, there is inadequate efficiency in the political apparatus, a low degree of productivity, an absence of entrepreneurship, an absence of political initiative; let’s say, there is no plan of the state in the way that there is – despite everything, and even though sometimes it seems that it does not work well – a plan of capital. In other words, there is a shortage of capitalism and, more precisely, of large-scale capitalism, in the modern state. Now, why is this the case? Here, naturally, there is a whole history of the relationship between political power and economic power, within capitalism, that needs to be retraced.

In this history, I would, for instance, avoid the distinction between bourgeois state and capitalist state. This is because, at this point, it should be said that a capitalist state – in other words, a state of capital, a modern state of big capital – has not yet historically appeared in any part of the world. For the same reason, I would avoid the distinction between bourgeois society and capitalist society, because with this distinction we end up simplifying the overall history of capital, constructing two phases that would supposedly exhaust its entire history. On the one hand, a liberal-competitive society of small commodity producers; on the other, the society of large monopoly industries – after which the history of capital is finished. And what would come thereafter? Either a postcapitalist society, as they say these days, or a socialist society.

In my view, it is better to think of capital’s history instead as, on the one hand, a logical continuum – a logical continuity and thus an economic continuity – and, on the other hand, a practical discontinuity and thus a political discontinuity. Here, I would make precisely this distinction: continuity/discontinuity, the former in economic development, the latter in political leaps. So, continuities and leaps together: this is the history of capital. And I do not believe that it is possible to quickly enumerate which moments were leaps and which entailed continuity, because this, I repeat, would require a historical reconstruction of the entire sequence of events, which, after all, is yet to finish. Until recently, the crisis – let’s say, the economic crisis, the classical concept of crisis – turned out to be a mechanism of adjustment, a mechanism for relaunching economic development. Political tensions were unloaded onto the crisis and resolved within it. Today, however, perhaps exactly the opposite is happening. In other words, we have a state apparatus that, in its deficient and defective capitalist operations, absorbs and prevents the explosion of the critical contradictions to which the movement of development, and especially economic development, gives rise. It is on this terrain that two discoveries become possible: first, the current delay of the state with respect to society is functional to the existing mechanism of development. In other words, this delay, if it exists, is sometimes something that serves the system’s own capacity for development. Perhaps the possible capitalist control of the economic crisis consists precisely in this: in the capitalist capacity to manipulate the political delay in relation to the economic sphere. Perhaps the impossibility, at this point in history, of the great crisis in the classical sense of the term lies here. I would stress this point: seeing how this delay works subjectively within a particular policy of capitalist development, as part of the control panel that capital uses to manage its society.

The second discovery, in my view, is the existence of a political cycle of capital; in other words, the discovery that its political development has a cyclical nature with its own specificity in relation to the classic economic cycle of capital itself. In my opinion, it is possible to speak of a political cycle, just as we have spoken, correctly, in a Marxist sense, of an economic cycle of capital. Now, as far as the first point is concerned, that is, the delay’s being functional, we certainly should not believe that this delay has been subjectively chosen by the political stratum. Let’s not end up adopting this position; otherwise, we would be returning to arguments about the diabolical capacities of capital to continually invent new and never-before-seen instruments of control over its society. If the political stratum were capable of this awareness, it would not be, in my view, a political stratum that lags behind [un ceto politico arretrato]1; it would be very advanced if it were able to play subjectively with these things. The fact is a fact in itself; in other words, the fact is that of the political cleavage between politics and economics, which elicits precisely those effects that I mentioned, of the system’s survival – which thus prolongs the life of the system. It is an objective fact of the situation, something that is created within capital’s very mechanism of development. We are dealing with a formally unitary system, as we know. The capitalist system is a formally unitary system with a dualistic content, so to speak: that is, one single system of two classes. This is, at bottom, the nature of capital; and this nature, once it has been lived all the way through in historical terms – in other words, once it is completely, politically unfolded – this is precisely what was supposed to lead to its end, according to the schema that Marx was working on. Leaving aside the variations introduced later by Marxists, Marx’s own schema was precisely this one. If we made it so that the two-class system rose from a purely economic clash to a clash, to a fact of political struggle, this would mean that the system would have reached the conclusion of its cycle; and it would then be possible to go beyond this cycle. This political unfolding – in Marx’s schema, the political unfolding of the class contradiction, the complete sweep of the process from the relations of production to power, its unbroken sweep from the factory to the state – is the historical fact (or rather, the political fact) that was supposed to lead the capitalist system to its death. And, of course, it is the historical fact that in reality has not occurred.

Why has it not occurred? In my view, mechanisms of self-defense, of the system’s self-correction, were set in motion. From this we see that the well-known limits of development are sometimes self-limitations of capital. I repeat, they are not subjectively chosen by the capitalist political stratum; rather, the system objectively provides them. Therefore, I repeat, they are mechanisms of self-correction, of the system’s self-defense. On this basis, we discover that there is a form of automatism in capital, even as a social relation. We see that big capital and large machinery are very close relatives. That is, at the level of complex machinery, I would say that capital no longer assigns its self-regulation to a single mechanism (as once was the case, for example, with the market). On the contrary, it assigns its self-regulation to many mechanisms. These mechanisms are sometimes opposed to each other. There can be, on the one hand, the advanced intervention of the state as the engine and buttress for development; and, on the other hand, there can also be a regression [arretramento] of the political terrain, as a brake and a check on the class struggle, something that is developed against development itself. These two things – advanced intervention of the state in the economy and regression of the political terrain – can sometimes live side by side, coexisting in a single political dimension. In each case, that is, we have autonomy of the political. In the first case, let’s say, we have the conquest by capital of this autonomy for itself; in the second case, we have the concession that capital makes in certain moments in order to escape from a given critical moment. And so, we arrive at what we may call the specificity of the political [lo specifico politico], in other words, the specificity of the political cycle with respect to the economic cycle. We are faced with the problem of why Marx’s schema, of a continuous development from the economic to the political, has not historically worked out, and why, on the contrary, the opposite has taken place, evident in the fact that, for example, the economic crisis – the precise moment, in other words, of the economic system’s near-collapse – produced a political development of capital. The example of 1929 in the United States and the subsequent New Deal is indeed a convincing illustration of this thesis.2 At other times, the opposite happened: rapid economic development, quick growth, caused a regression of the political terrain. That is what we see on a small scale in the Italian events of the sixties.

Now, when we go to inspect why Marx’s schema did not work out – the schema, I repeat, of this continuity that was supposed to go from the economic to the political – here we encounter an explanation that has had currency here in Italy, and which somewhat shapes what has been called the Marxism of the sixties, or the “revolutionary” Marxism of the sixties. This explanation says that there was a subjective flaw in the organizational level of the working class,3 that is, a flaw on the terrain of the workers’ movement. It is precisely this subjective flaw that is supposed to have inhibited the connection between the economic and the political. In other words, because the working class plays the role of the system’s hinge, the workers’ struggles’ lack of political outlet ended up making the great political initiative of capital itself fall short. This is an explanation which, when presented in this way, has its own justification. Yet it was presented in a more crude way, in talk of the betrayal of the organizations, the betrayal of the leaders, and so on. However, I would say that, even in its most refined form, this explanation – which sees the workers’ struggle’s lack of political outlet as the reason for capitalist political regression – even in such a form, this explanation is insufficient, because it does not provide an answer to the problem. A new question emerges, to which an answer must be given: Why was there this flaw in the subject?

We must review how Marx’s schema objectively functions. Early capitalism, the capitalism of origin – which is not the capitalism of the 16th century but of the 19th century, the first half of the 19th century – effectively offered documentation, so to speak, for Marx’s thesis regarding the government as the “committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie.” That is, it cannot be said that Marx, in the Critique of Political Economy, was an interpreter of a society of small commodity producers, as has been said by some of his adversaries. One need only open Capital or the Grundrisse to see that this is not accurate. The steps by which Marx advances beyond the situation of capital contemporary to him, the steps by which he identifies the future developments of capital up to our present – these are there for all to see. However, it must be said that in “the critique of politics” – if we put aside the critique of political economy for a moment – Marx does not manage to go beyond the epoch of capitalism’s origins. In 1858, as you all know, the critique of political economy was supposed to include the famous six books: capital, landed property, wage labor, the state, international trade, and the world market, as outlined in the well-known letter to Lassalle of February 22, 1858. This was Marx’s work plan. But then capital alone took up four books. As for the rest, nothing from landed property on, including the analysis of labor, is examined in much depth, as has already been said. Among these remainders, there is also the problem of the state. I would say that, on the topic of “politics,” on the topic of the “political,” Marx’s youthful works perhaps say more than his mature ones. A work like the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right perhaps says more than all the other little passages, the little phrases that have been extracted from various contexts and historical works of Marx, and combined to form what is, in my view, a political thought falsely attributed to Marx. I repeat, Marx’s discourse on capital seems to me to be entirely projected forward, that is to say, the entire discussion considers the real development of capital; Marx’s discourse on the state, on the other hand, looks backward, at the apparent development that this political problem has undergone. When Marx carries out a critique of politics, he does not manage, in my view, to effectively carry out a critique of politics; instead, he always carries out a critique of ideology, which, as you all know, is something different. The thesis that first there is an economic power and then there is a political power, and that these forms of power fundamentally coincide – which indeed is Marx’s thesis (they coincide in reality and are only formally divided, that is, real coincidence and purely formal distinction) – is understandable precisely in light of early capitalism. When we understand this capitalism as being closer to precapitalist societies than to the societies of what we call big capital, and when we speak of continuity and leaps, we discover that, at bottom, there is a greater distance between one and another phase of capital’s development than there is between one and another economic and social formation discovered, and sometimes invented, by historical materialism. The truth is that, in my opinion, historical materialism itself is a product of early capitalism; in other words, it is a product of this early capitalism settling accounts with its former political consciousness. After which the Marxists, just as they generalized Marx’s economic discourse, generalized his political discourse to an even greater extent; once again taking his analysis of a part of the capitalist system, which concerned the critique of political economy, to be an integral ordering of all aspects of capitalist society – which, probably, on the contrary, was not present in Marx’s discourse.

Yet if we go back to the fact, or to the thesis, that the political is delayed with respect to everything else, we also see that the political sphere discussed by Marx is in a phase that precedes the phase of his capital, the capital that he had before his eyes. Ultimately, generalizing that phase which Marx elaborated politically and viewed politically – this means generalizing a delay. Now: the generalization of a delay, in my view, is the codification of Marx’s political thought, that is, the thought that is specifically Marx’s. But let’s see, instead, if it really is a case of delay. The fact that we always have a so-called new economy before us, on the one hand, and always a so-called old politics, on the other, is an indicator that should help us to understand that, ultimately, the base-superstructure relation – precisely on this terrain – does not work. It is true that, at this stage, to escape from this problem, we must retrace the history of the modern state in its entirety: from the (very long) process of state formation to the various cyclical changes which have invested it, which time and again have revolutionized its internal structures, its relations with the outside of the society. Through this history, by tracing this history, we can see that there is a logic internal to the development of capitalist political institutions, a logic that must be grasped, in my view, independently of the history of capital.

We cannot rule out the possibility that we may need to commit ourselves in the future to discovering the laws of movement of the modern state, just as Marx discovered the laws of movement of capital. We are confronted with capital and its state, almost like two parallel histories: two parallel histories that do not always coincide and which sometimes even contradict each other. What is clear now is that it is not about one single history, as orthodox Marxism has argued up to now. We must work on some hypotheses: for example, the distinction or separation between state and civil society is not a purely formal one. That is, it must not be conceived as an ideological trick of the bourgeoisie, nor is it a matter of considering it to be simply a function of class domination. Here, again, it is a matter of reconstructing a process, a process of distinction and separation that, rather than coming to an end, historically deepens its reasons for existence. Moreover, it is a process that capital only in part allows; it also, in part, undergoes it. In order to follow this process of distinction or separation between state and civil society, we should approach one topic practically, one which certainly requires a deeper examination, beyond what can be said here. When, during the economic history of capital, ownership and management of capital became separated, ownership and management of power were already separate. In other words, the law of the economy as primary cause is invalid here; we could almost say that the opposite has happened. The sequence of political institutions offered a model, which then, in other ways, on other grounds, was applied precisely in the economic.

Here we see that governing [la direzione] the state offered a lesson that was useful for running the large enterprise. I repeat, this is a difficult topic to develop, and its formulation is tricky. It is clear that power remains in the hands of capital, that it remains its property. Yet big capital is never alone in capitalist society: on its right side, it must fight against what are usually called its backward elements [arretratezze]. The parts of this great machine of big capital are subject to a rapid process of obsolescence; they get old very quickly. On the other hand, these backward elements politically resist their own death, and capital is not willing to eliminate them with violence, once and for all, because it may still need them politically. Thus, there is always this relation of capital with what is not yet at the level of big capital. I repeat, these things must not be seen, as it is often said in a simple way, as precapitalist or even feudal residues. Rather, they are parts of capital itself that have aged over the course of a long history of capital. They are a part of capital itself that gets older with respect to the development of big capital. On its left, this capital always has the working class goading it forward, forcing it into development, threatening it if it does not develop; and hence derives that position of centrality assumed by every stable political position of capitalist power. This solution of centrality presents the historical necessity of a political stratum, a professional political stratum to which the management of power is assigned. This professional political stratum must be capable of mediating between these internal components of capital, including that one which is the antagonist interlocutor, which is indeed working-class labor, the working class in general. From this requirement of centrality and this requirement of a professional political stratum, a mediator, there derives the equally historical necessity, so to speak, of an art of politics, that is, of particular techniques for the conquest and preservation of power, a science of collective practical activity that is separate from the analysis of individual action or the action of groups. A science of practical collective activity; a science, precisely, of politics. Hence, then, the necessity of a sociological analysis of people’s behavior, of organizations, of political institutions. All these things – subjective politics, political techniques, political science, political sociology – together make up the history of modern political thought.

Now, here it is also necessary to give a particular warning: namely, that it is absolutely not a matter of flipping the relation between the political and the economic, so that the political is directly posited as coming first. Rather, it is a matter of understanding that, among the different terrains of struggle that cover the space of a capitalist society, there is also the struggle between capital and its state.

The delay may exist either because this state is too far behind with respect to capitalist needs, or for the opposite reason, because it sometimes runs too far ahead. That is to say, dramatic transitions in the history of capital have originated from precisely this point, from what I would call a stage of imperfect mediation by the institutions of political power. From this, from this state of imperfect mediations, sometimes space has also opened for individual revolutionary actions by workers. The fact that time has demonstrated these revolutionary occasions, so to speak, to be illusory (because of this absence – that is, because of the state’s incapacity for political mediation) leads us to return to the critique of the use of this moment of capital’s political development. In other words, it is probably not a matter of using the state’s insufficient political mediation, but something more: a different matter, to which we now turn. The epoch of the sudden attack, pouncing on the adversary’s mistakes, truly seems at this point to be over. And so, the moment of a war of maneuver presents itself – in other words, a war made up of successive moves, all scientifically forecasted, and all tactically prepared.

The parallel histories of capital and the modern state at this point seem to diverge rather than merge, as they were to do in Marx’s schema. On this point, there is something that did not work in certain analyses we made in previous years. In the reduction that we made at the beginning of the sixties, of the entire society to a factory, we basically used to understand this process to involve the direct recuperation of the political institutions into capital. It must be said that the early sixties offered empirical documentation for such a solution to the problem. At the same time, the early sixties offered, in my opinion, a mystified view, that is, an incorrect one. Subsequently, the objective crisis of this prospect – a crisis that was not only Italian, but an international crisis, a crisis of capitalist political initiative at the international level – produced a change in this theorization. Space thus opened for the development of a theory that, in my opinion, is politically very rich, but which as yet has scarcely been explored: namely, the theory that went by the name of development and power – two functions for the two classes, development being proper to capital, and power proper to the working class.

In my opinion, we should proceed further along this path, and we should come to a hypothesis that sees capital as essentially an economic category, and wage labor as essentially a political category. This is, naturally, a practical hypothesis that still must be verified and tested politically. We are a long way off from doing so. But to achieve this, I think it is necessary to first elaborate a medium-term strategy, to get to the point of steering the process in which the state machine is adapted to the productive machine of capital. Instead of relying on those moments when the institutions of political power provide capital with insufficient political mediation (and instead of seizing the revolutionary opportunity and assuming positions of power, the management of power, for ourselves – which in my opinion is a 19th-century view of political struggle), it is instead a matter of consciously taking hold of this process to modernize the state machine, of even coming to manage, not reforms in general (as it is said in technical jargon), but instead, specifically, that particular type of reform which is the capitalist reform of the state.

In this perspective, the working class turns out to be the one true rationality possible for the modern state. The irrationality of capital is not an economic irrationality; above all, it is a political irrationality. This is the concept that might even take the place of Marx’s schema of the critique of political economy. Naturally, it is a matter of running the calculated risk of more organic action between state and capital, the threat of a formidable power bloc that would then, in fact, turn out to be unassailable and invincible. However, ultimately, I believe that, in the long run, pursuing this route will not lead to the reinforcement of the capitalist bloc, but rather to its cracking at a decisive point. In my view, it is necessary above all to unseat capital from its position of political centrality. Big capital must not have enemies on its right – and I do not mean this in the typical, crude sense, seeing so-called fascist political positions on its right, which then necessitates that we make capital democratic before confronting capital itself. Rather, I mean this in the sense in which we were using the word before: namely, that capital does not have authoritarian temptations on its right, but, rather, backward elements of, I repeat, a capitalist and not precapitalist nature. It is precisely this capitalist underdevelopment of capital [arretratezza capitalistica del capitale] that must be removed from the mix. Capital must be isolated in a particular position; it must be taken out of its current comfortable position, where it has not specific political positions, but social positions with which it is able to play in turn – now one, now the other. The goal is to recreate an effective duality of power, but on a large scale: no longer in the factory, that is, no longer in the relations of production, and no longer even in society, but now between society and state.

To conclude: the autonomy of the political actually turns out to be a utopia if taken as a directly capitalist political project; it actually becomes the last of the bourgeois ideologies; it becomes feasible, perhaps, only as a working-class demand. The modern state, at this point, turns out to be nothing less than the modern form of the working class’s autonomous organization. The working class no longer establishes its autonomous organization in the form of the party alone, as was indeed the case in the Marxian schema, in the tradition codified by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. But really, if it is possible – and if it does not also ultimately turn out to be another utopia, which it probably is – we must make the state itself the modern form of a working class organized into a dominant class, as part of a history of capital which then, naturally, carries on, which for a moment does not yet end.


Bobbio: It seems to me that some of the topics presented by Tronti merit our close attention and call on us to at least begin a discussion. I think that the political in some way always comes after; that is, in a certain sense, it lags behind the economic. Alternatively – and to me this seems to be the aspect emphasized most by Tronti – can the political also be considered, in particular historical circumstances, to be more advanced? It seems to me that all the examples that have been given, and especially the examples of the contemporary Italian political system, which are particularly relevant for us, concern the backwardness of the political system, rather than the political system being more advanced. What Tronti noted at the beginning is very interesting: the distribution between institutions and political stratum in the sphere of the political. However, he does not return to this distinction in his talk. I would like to pose a question in this regard. When one speaks of delay, does the delay regard the stratum, or the institutions, or both? When we speak of institutions, for example, we talk about the parliamentary system, or bureaucracy. When we speak of the political stratum, we speak of parties: for example, in Italy, we speak of the Christian Democrat Party, of the centrist form in the system of government. In reality, how are the institutions and the political stratum grafted onto one another? And when we speak of a delay, are we speaking of a delay of both, or not?

Tronti: This problem certainly exists. Naturally, the two things depend on the particular case, insofar as neither functions in the same way all the time. In other words, it is clear that the institutional level is slower, and that within it there are residues of the past that must be broken, sometimes violently; whereas the political stratum perhaps is more agile, in the sense that it may perhaps be changed more rapidly, and in any case “leaps” more than the institutions. In some cases, there may even be a struggle within the autonomy of the political, in the sense that the political stratum which attains an advanced level of awareness, for example, finds itself struggling against the backwardness of its own institutions. It has sometimes happened that a political stratum of capitalist extraction has been unable to impose a particular initiative because the political institutions available to it were delayed. This is also partly the case here in Italy. We sometimes talk about how elements of innovation and political initiative have run up against an obstacle in the state machine. Then, when capital expands the political stratum, in the sense that it introduces into the personnel of government elements previously considered outside the traditional political stratum – for example, with talk of a so-called opening to the left, and the like – this new political stratum finds itself engaged in rearguard battles. It has further been said by some people engaged in the experience of the center-left, by certain socialist ministers, that they found themselves wanting, subjectively, a certain type of policy while at the same time finding themselves confronted with the impossibility of realizing it, because of the existence of bureaucratic incrustations, a slow and arduous legislative routine, opaque institutions of political power… But this is a discourse that essentially should be explored further. It is not that the political is this entire, absolute thing; there are different aspects within it that must be examined…

Intervention: I would like to know if the expression “political stratum” [ceto politico] corresponds to the expression “political class” [classe politica], and, if it does not, what the differences are between the two expressions.

Tronti: I can respond briefly. “Political class” is a term already codified in political science; it has a precise reference point, there are specific names that have theorized it. To use it would therefore mean almost necessarily to refer to certain theorists. “Political stratum,” on the other hand, is a term used in contemporary journalism. For this reason, we are witnessing something strange today: “political class” has almost acquired a pejorative meaning, in the sense that, when we say “political class” we are referring to the so-called party hacks; whereas “political stratum” sometimes has a more objective meaning, in the sense that, this expression is used to indicate the real administrators of power, those who at this particular moment administer power.

Bobbio: I believe that, today, the word “stratum” is better than “class.” But I do not know the reason for that question.

Intervention: (Somebody asks for a clarification of the concept of “political development” [Italian editorial note].)

Tronti: When I speak of political development, it is true that this should be an introduction to a proper discussion; it is true that the real problems begin where my discussion ends. But leaving that aside, in my view political development can mean, for example, a process that I have called adaptation of the state machine to the productive machine of capital, to the laws of big, industrial capital. We are not saying anything new with that, because this falls within the program of a significant segment of big capital itself, perhaps not so much in Italy, but certainly in other countries. There is, however, something more: political development, in my opinion, corresponds to capitalist political initiative, that is, to what we have sometimes called the great political initiative of capital, which chooses a strategy not only of economic development – which is implicit, almost objectively materialized in its industrial development; instead, it makes a fundamental strategic choice, an openly class politics, let’s say, that is strategically long-term, tactically deployed, and concretely advanced. Political development also means capital renouncing the use of the old ideological apparatus, which fundamentally tends to mask its class politics, its class nature. And thus, political development means precisely recreating a relation especially with the fundamental class antagonist, with wage labor; a relation that is one of open struggle. It is something that has been done, I repeat, in very few cases. Perhaps during the Rooseveltian experience there was something of this, not so much with Roosevelt himself but among his intellectuals, something that exists at certain times among certain intellectuals who revolve around power. But capital has never made such a fundamental choice, and I think that, all things considered, this fundamental choice will never be made. For there to be such a choice, this strategically clear class politics must be carried out by the working class, and by the working class precisely from a position of power. So, at its limit, I see political development, once again, as the product of a strategic choice, but a strategic choice by the workers, to which capital is partly subjected, depending on the creation of a different relation of force between the two classes.

Intervention: Political development would thus be an adaptation of certain superstructures to a given structure, in very rudimentary terms. However, I do not understand from Tronti’s answer how the working class enters into this, because it is a matter of capitalist political development. I would like to know which variables are characteristic of this phenomenon of capitalist political development.

Tronti: I said that this adaptation of the state machine is what is currently defined, in general, as political development. I also said that we could offer a different definition of political development, which would be that of making a class relation explicit, a political and not an ideological relation. So class conflict brought to, let’s say, a pure level; which is something that capital does not do because politically, perhaps, it is delayed. So then, to make this happen, it is necessary that the working class makes this choice. I believe that the working class does enter into this here, because it is in its interest to choose an open political relation, an open political conflict, not one that is ideological, not one that is masked, but one where each class bears its class interest and bears it openly. For this to happen, there must be a certain type of state machine. For this reason, we need not say “no” to the process of adapting the state machine as well to the modern levels of capitalist production. Because it fosters this specific form of political development.

Bobbio: Political development is always linked to determinate institutions. Which institutions, during a certain period, can be considered more developed than others for a given problem? When one speaks of political development, one says, for example, that universal suffrage is a more developed institution than restricted suffrage. Political development therefore means the introduction of certain institutions which seem to correspond better to the development of the entire society at that particular, historical period. The classic example is universal suffrage, which represents a developed institution, in the sense that it corresponds to a certain development of the whole society at a particular, historical moment. In this way, we could say that the parliamentary system is a phase of political development with respect to absolute monarchy, and even with respect to the constitutional system. This is the usual manner in which we talk about political development. I do not think that we can talk about political development without saying which institutions are characteristic of it. When we say political development on the part of the workers’ movement, what are its characteristic political institutions? Are they those institutions able to represent this moment of development with respect to the bourgeois state? If so, which institutions are these? There is the problem of direct democracy, there is the problem of workers’ councils. In other words, it is said that this is a phase of political development, which corresponds to a determinate social development that has been pushed forward by the working class in determinate, historical circumstances.

Intervention: At the end of his presentation, Tronti said that, today, the appropriate form of working-class organization is the state. I do not understand whether, because of this, the working class needs to conquer the state that exists, or whether it must organize itself as a state, and to what extent the second thing – if these were in fact the alternatives – depends on the first.

Tronti: The phrase that I used at the end of the introduction was more of a quip than a prospect. That phrase was merely supposed to bring attention back to the relation between the working class and the state, this time in a positive way; which is to say, this relation has thus far been considered in negative terms, given that we are all children of Lenin’s theorization – as well as that of Marx, of Marx at his best – of smashing the state machine. The first objective of the workers’ struggle, according to this theorization, is to smash the state machine of capital. In my opinion, putting forward this terminology again, today, does not aid research, because, as we know, the alternative, to smash the machine or to use it as it is, is a historical one: on the one hand, the communist movement, on the other hand, social democracy. This alternative has not produced very much, ultimately; it has led neither to a deepening of the specific political thematic of the workers’ movement, nor to coherent, historical results of any value. It would be better, then, to overcome this alternative by considering it to be a historical type of alternative, which has itself been overcome by the course of events. It would be better, first, to simultaneously pose the problem of the relations between the working class and the state in addition to that of the relations between capital and the state. It would be better, in other words, to consider these interwoven relations together, because so far, the solution has been simplified – in the sense that there was, on the one hand, capital with its state, and on the other hand, the working class which felt this repressive machine bearing down upon it, this machine which it first and foremost needed to smash.

But the problem turns out to be more complex, in the sense that we discover that this so-called state machine, in addition to being the seat of repression, in the traditional sense of the term, is above all the seat of mediation of the various inter-class relations; and this mediation includes the relation between the working class and capital. Now, because we see capital use its state as a form for mediating between its own internal components, another problem emerges: that of seeing whether this seat of mediation must be left completely in capital’s hands, or whether, even before the problem of smashing this machine, there is not first the problem of taking this seat of mediation, entirely or in part, out of capital’s hands. To what extent a prospect of this type is possible today, to what extent it is possible without falling into a position that has already been mentioned (that is, the classical solution of social democracy) – namely, the attempt to surreptitiously infiltrate the state apparatus to attempt to change it gradually – all of this is certainly a problem. Yet not even this, in my opinion, is the solution to take seriously in the end, because it too turns out to be an old solution. Instead, it is a matter, once again, of bringing back the problem of class relations in the political context, in terms of that duality of power that exists in the factory, exists in society, exists within the state, but which does not yet exist between the state and everything else. Here is the problem: seeing whether it is possible to raise this duality to this level; considering whether it is possible to effectively spread this growth – of the state, on the one hand, and of capital, on the other – to the point that the two come to represent two different class demands.

Bobbio: It seems to me, however, that what remains is the problem of the institutions, the problem of the type of institutions that the working class, elevated to political class, has. The present institutions of the state are what they are. If they are actually lagging behind capitalist development, how can they be used for further development? The problem is that of looking for new institutions. This, then, is the problem of new forms of democracy, of new democratic institutions. Basically, the constitutional proposals that have emerged from the workers’ movement, in its long tradition, are proposals for certain institutions: the system of councils, direct democracy, a certain type of relation between economic councils and political parties. These are all problems that, in my opinion, must be brought back into the discussion when we speak of the working class as a political class. It is what is being called new democracy. This is also a response to the question about political development. This would be an advanced political development, in other words, undeniable political development in the sense of new institutions that would improve the present political system.

Intervention: In this working-class project of opening up space between the state, on the one hand, and capital, on the other, how are the relations between the working class and its own organizations configured?

Tronti: Naturally, this problem is a serious one, in the sense that we certainly cannot think of a political growth of the working class up to the level of the state without the working class developing its own political organization, in addition to its trade-union organization. Let’s say organization in general, out of respect for the traditions. I think that this additional mediation – which intervenes in this problem of the transition of the working class toward the state – is an essential one, in that, in this context the levels of working-class spontaneity tend to diminish. In other words, the importance, the contribution of what was called the spontaneity of the working class, of its struggles, of its interests, diminishes qualitatively, independently of its quantitative diminution. We require the intervention of an additional mediation that consciously brings this problem not into the working class, as was once said – that is, a mediation that carries the party consciousness into the working class – but, if anything, we need a mediation that carries it out of the working class, extracting it from the working class in order to carry it into institutions of a capitalist type. And this mediation is, once again, a mediation that is political to a greater extent. And I would go further, even if what I say may seem strange. Today, in the context of this discussion, we have basically valorized the theme of the “autonomy of the political,” in the sense that we are saying: this is something that interests us from the viewpoint of the class struggle as well, and we think that we can use it in a way that also integrates certain interests of the capitalist side. I would say that this autonomy of the political – and this concerns the state, for example, in relation to capital – must be extended to the forms of political organization of the working class in relation to the working class itself. We must have the conversation – even if, I repeat, it is a bit strange for us – regarding the valorization of that moment of the party’s political autonomy even in relation to the working class, even in relation to the workers’ interest. Why? Precisely because, I repeat, the importance of working-class spontaneity diminishes qualitatively in the face of this project of a different type of conquest of political power. And so, a further mediation is even more necessary, a mediation which is no longer that of the capitalist political stratum, but, once again, that of the workers’ party, even with regard to its own class of provenance. Does this mean that we must repeat the same argument we made about the state in relation to capital when we come to discuss the relation between the party and the working class? In part, yes. In my opinion, there is a real problem of modernizing the party, just as there is a problem of modernizing the state. I would repeat the same things we have said about the state: efficiency, productivity, entrepreneurship. All these things, today, are things that we must demand for the historical parties of the working class. The first process is modernizing the party, which then would underscore precisely its capacity for emancipation even from the working class. You will say: there is no need, it is already sufficiently emancipated. However, there is a problem. There is this mythico-ideological referent that sometimes becomes an obstacle. What is required is instead a freedom of movement that makes it possible to take every possible initiative to put a certain type of capitalist power into crisis, even without always making the ritual reference to a certain class reality.

Intervention: I think that we can agree on the polemic against the conception that the development of political institutions is given as “an appendix,” as “progressive democratization.” But I do not understand how you can put forward again today what sounded to me like a “long march through the institutions,” the fundamentally Gramscian project of the conquest of the state, to be taken by means of a “long-term war.” Nor do I understand how you can again suggest discussion of structural reforms at the very moment when this project is in crisis and when nobody seems to believe in it anymore. Even Trentin, responding to Agnelli, speaks of the need to establish today’s discussion on the crucial point of how labor-power is used.4 And Trentin also says that Agnelli, the industrialists, and those who support them do not struggle against these projects of advanced, progressive renovation of the state. In other words, I want to understand how Tronti’s position relates to a real state of class conflict within the relations of production.

Tronti: I think that is a correct objection. Correct in the sense that we have isolated a problem, one that was our chief concern, and the references to everything else were made casually. I did not go through the history of all these problems, all these relations. Nobody is more convinced than I that the relations of production are the soul of capital, in all periods of its history. And this is precisely why I have always insisted on this topic, putting it at the center of a whole series of research projects. Today, I tried to confront something that has been very much underestimated, and liquidated too quickly, by our side. The form in which this was done is how we usually, polemically, deal with these things; that is, when one formulates a problem, one formulates it in its sharpest form, in a unilateral form. One does not attempt to put every mediation back into play; one takes up the problem in a polemical manner, and the more arduous the task becomes, the more difficult it is to resolve, the better it is. This was the way in which we confronted this problem. The reasons why we dealt with it at this particular moment are reasons of another type.

Let’s recall the class conflict at this time. The research we were engaged in began in the sixties. There have been many changes since then. In my opinion, today we find ourselves at a moment of class conflict in which the crux of the matter for everybody – at this point, both for the workers and for the capitalists – turns out to be exactly, more or less, what we have highlighted here. We are emerging from a period in which the class relation was experienced above all at the level of the relations of production. In Italy, the sixties were fundamentally and precisely this: a form of outright, “pure” class struggle, impolitical or prepolitical in the traditional sense of the word; even if the struggle was political in the profound sense of the same word, in the sense that it put back into play the relations of force between the two classes, modifying the relations of force between the classes in struggle, in my view, in favor of the working class. And then what happened? There was a particular type of capitalist reaction that blocked the growth of the movement, and it did so precisely because we were unable to grasp or use this change of terrain adopted by the capitalist initiative at that specific moment. In other words, when the relations of force at the level of the relations of production was modified in favor of the working class, we saw a precise and explicit use, by the capitalist side, of the political level of the state in the terms we have been discussing here: that is, using the political delay in the institutions of the state apparatus, delayed, that is, in relation to the rest of society. This use of the political delay reintroduced the question of so-called formal politics, which, as we have seen and argued, is not in fact formal at all; because we discover, once again, that it has an effect at the level of the relations of production. This regression of the political terrain carried out by the capitalist side, which then also entails a regression in the very level of the class struggles in the relations of production – what has this led to? In my view, it has led to the existence now of an opposite reaction; in other words, it sets back into motion something that had temporarily been relegated to the background. There is once again an initiative, by so-called big capital, that reemerges at the level of political institutions. This regression of the political terrain has already, basically, served its purpose: namely, as a block to the development of the class struggle; and it may also have brought the relations of force between the two classes back to the level at which they were before the great clash of the sixties. Precisely for this reason, an additional demand is already reemerging at the level of big capital: to abandon this delay of the political terrain and to take up political development once more. In other words, at this point, within capital, on the capitalist side, we see that there is a struggle between advanced and backward parts of capital, regarding the nature and the content of their state. And this is the crucial point that they now must resolve. There truly are moments in which capital finds itself having once again to resolve, from the beginning, almost from square one, the problem of its state. Now, at this point, I ask myself: must the workers’ side continue to ignore this problem internal to capital and continue to undertake its particular type of struggle, independently of what happens within the adversary’s side? Why worry about this and shift aim, why change one’s position? I have always thought of a working-class political struggle as one that is agile, prepared to continually modify its own positions and leap from one terrain to another. We should never, never let ourselves be enclosed on one terrain, continually carrying out struggles at the level of production – over wages, over working hours, over conditions of work – at a time when capital is resolving, must resolve one way or another, the problem of its state. To leave this problem to them because it is their problem: this is a political error!

At this point, lest we always allow others to suggest the themes and terrains of struggle, we need to be able to shift ourselves nimbly onto terrains which become decisive at a given moment. In my opinion, today there is a decisive, crucial issue that must be resolved, in one way or another, if we want to revive a certain type of advanced class struggle at the level of the relations of production as well. It is a political problem of a formal character, which is not, I repeat, what is presented simplistically as the reactionary or authoritarian danger. Instead, there is a problem that the capitalists need to resolve regarding how their state machine functions. The working class must intervene actively within this process. It must suggest and choose one solution or another; it must present, if possible, another solution. In my view, it must choose decisively, openly, the solution of modernization, the leap forward in the state’s political structures. This is our concern here. That this argument may be Gramscian is something that I would not rule out in the strongest of terms, but it does not seem to me that such a reference is correct. It is an entirely different thematic, an entirely different planet of discourse, which clearly did not exist then, which could not have existed at that time. Let’s make sure that we are not enclosed on one particular terrain of struggle, one which then would not be a particular terrain but a permanent one. At certain moments, it is necessary to know how to leave the terrain of struggle around the relations of production, to know how to leave it in order to take up the crucial political problem that is most relevant at the moment. Otherwise, we will be defeated, and fatally, because we will find ourselves confronting not the police repression of the state, but a state that is perhaps different from the current one, a modern state in which the working class has had no say, in which the process of modernization has been conducted, managed, and carried forward solely by the capitalist side, solely by the advanced part of capital. In this situation, the workers’ side is destined to endure this process of modernization in the same manner as it has in other large-scale, advanced, capitalist countries. This is exactly what has happened: the working class, in certain cases, has committed the error of allowing itself to be enclosed in its particular struggle, in its natural struggle, which is that of the relations of production. It has not known how to use the formal political terrain, and it has abandoned itself to this defeat over the long term; it has allowed itself to be defeated strategically, because a defeat on this terrain is a strategic defeat. When we find ourselves facing a new and different state managed by capital, we are not talking about a defeat in the struggle over wages and conditions (“we lost this contract, let’s try again in two years”). It is a strategic, long-term defeat, because it closes a prospect of political struggle in the long-term. And this is an error that we absolutely must not make.

Intervention: This argument leads to a paradoxical conclusion. At the beginning, you polemicized against the concept of the progressive destiny of capital’s institutions. In the end, you say instead that the organized working class has the task of proposing this same progressive development of the political institutions. You thus end up reintroducing an old approach, that of picking up the banners of democracy abandoned by the bourgeoisie. If this position had any justification in the past, today it is clearly absurd.

Tronti: Let’s leave the banners aside; the banners have been absent from this entire discussion for some time. I hesitate even to discuss the issue of the contents of this new political power, because I am afraid of bringing the “eternal values” of the working class into the discussion. I am reluctant to descend onto this terrain, because even beginning to say these things (“we are for direct democracy instead of representative democracy; we are for the power of all”) strikes me as wrong – so I prefer not to speak of them. This is to say that the notion of reclaiming old ideas abandoned by the bourgeoisie is completely foreign to this discussion. But I will repeat what I said before. I admit that capital is predisposed to accept a working-class contribution to this modernization of capital. However, I am not scandalized by this at all. Rather, it pleases me, because it means that the workers’ side has room for movement that is real, and not utopian. At times when capital is not inclined to give this space to the workers, it means that a given capitalist society offers no opportunities for movement. That this space may exist does not mean that, when capital gives you a small opening, you must avoid going into it because capital is devilishly cunning: one accepts the struggle on that determinate terrain. It means that there is an opportunity for a kind of forced entry into a determinate process. Ultimately, every type of political struggle has been derived from this, in the sense that, in my opinion, the only type of political struggle that is effective, that leads to positive results, is the one in which, at a determinate moment, the interests of the two classes are both open, in the sense that both classes may, at a certain point, be interested in a determinate resolution of the situation. In that case, then, a determinate resolution of the situation becomes concretely possible. It is a matter of using the relations of force in such a way as to see who wins. But only in those sorts of cases does the political resolution actually become achievable. In closed situations, it is useless to pursue. The first imperative is to keep the situation open and in motion. If the problem of modernizing the capitalist state did not exist, I would not pose it as a problem for the workers. I pose the problem precisely because it exists for them as well, and so we must use this need capital has for the purposes of overturning it. This is the normal political struggle that occurs within a capitalist society. Contrasting political needs must be confronted and a determinate objective may be achieved when its resolution is being sought by two different paths. It is a matter of seeing who achieves it best and who reaches it first.

Intervention: In this entire discussion, the thing that is most difficult to grasp is the definition of the two central terms. That is, for Tronti, who is the working class and, more importantly, who is capital? I do not want to ask that we speak of the real in general; we are already generalizing too much. I want to ask a question that refers specifically to the current situation. At this moment, is big capital the government, or Giovanni Agnelli? If big capital is the government, then I do not see how we can speak of the autonomy of the political, and, above all, I do not see how we can speak of depriving capital of the state, for this would be to suggest depriving capital of itself. If, instead, big capital is Giovanni Agnelli, we can have this discussion: there is an autonomy of the political. However, only under the condition that we say that the autonomy of the political exists because it lags behind the development of capital, with respect to its general capacities. If big capital is Giovanni Agnelli, it can exist because the government is further behind than Giovanni Agnelli. Now, at this point, the struggle to subtract the state, to subtract the political, of its autonomy from capital, becomes an absolutely secondary question compared to the relation that the working class must establish with Giovanni Agnelli. It is a relation that can involve both the well-known and limited struggle within production, mentioned earlier, and it can also involve accepting Agnelli’s offer of a social pact. Because, at this moment, it is a matter of intervening at the more advanced level of capital to prevent certain things from happening without the intervention of the working class. It seems to me that, precisely if we start from the premise that it is a matter of depriving capital of the state, we then find ourselves needing to confront this dilemma, which it is important to clarify.

Tronti: This example, these days, is a classic one, and it is well within the parameters of our discussion. It is clear that today we cannot say that big capital is the government of Andreotti-Malagodi; I do not believe anyone can say this.5 On the other hand, I believe that what we might call Agnelli’s “political exit” is due precisely to the fact that the government of Andreotti-Malagodi exists. In other words, it is an exit by big capital that says: “Look, this delay of the political, which until now was useful for us” – and which big capital has itself used for its own class ends – “has gotten out of hand.” It is therefore time to take up a different argument, a different political line: it is a matter of taking up the problem of adapting the governmental level to the direct, strategic, and underlying interests of big capital. Now, this is the argument. When we say that there is friction, a split between the state and capital, this may be an example, I repeat, that concerns our local Italian experience. But it is an example that is also a classical one, precisely because it is presented in the most vivid terms. It is clear that the working class above all confronts big capital itself; in other words, its direct, fundamental relation is with big capital. However, it just so happens that big capital finds itself having to make a political proposal to advance the state, to adapt the state machine to its own, partisan interest, which then is its adaptation to the productive machine in general. I am asking: is this a proposal that the working class must reject or that it must accept? I am talking here about the same working class that finds itself fighting against Agnelli, Agnelli’s working class. Here we see, in my view, the agility of the working class, which should absolutely not give up its relation of struggle, should in no way give up its relation of antagonism at the level of the relations of production. In fact, this is precisely what is happening today – in a classical mode, I repeat, because, as it happens, precisely at this moment, we have a contractual, trade-union struggle at the level of production. On the other hand, the working class must, I would not say accept, but encourage that type of political initiative that Agnelli is proposing today. Its agility consists in this, and it is for this reason that I spoke earlier of the autonomy of the political from the organization of the class. Here, this is the specific case in which the political organization of the class should assume its autonomy from the class interest itself, from the interest of the working class, supporting the types of political proposals that, at that moment, produce antagonism in the working class at the grassroots level. In other words, the two interests coincide in the sense that, today, it is important for the working class to win a favorable contract, that is, to shift the relation of force in its favor once again. At the same time, it is not only important for the working class that the Andreotti-Malagodi government falls (because the problem is not only this), but this must also initiate a process, I repeat, of state modernization, of adaptation of the state machine, advancing the political terrain of struggle, because this too is in the interest of the workers – a good contract is not the only thing that is in their interest. And so, this politically mature and politically agile working class should have the capacity to fight on these different terrains. Do we want to say that the party needs to attain autonomy from the class, that the class must concede to its party the autonomy it needs to carry out this supportive work for big capital, at this particular moment? Let’s say – scandalizing everybody – even this. In my view, it is perhaps even more correct to say this. However, it is actually correct today to reference this example, precisely because it allows us to concretely see how a certain type of political struggle unfolds, how a certain type of political struggle should in fact unfold. It is a matter of playing on different levels, on different tables, and of then having the capacity to hold them all together. It is as we were saying earlier. What is the alternative to this solution? On the one hand, the working class, for its part, continues its struggle at the base, its struggle in the relations of production, its wage struggle. At the same time, we are all ignoring problems of a political order, that is, the fact that Agnelli says that we need a modern state, and that a certain political stratum, the one currently in power, says that the moment for this has yet to arrive. Must we ignore this, or do we need to commit ourselves to that type of political struggle as well? I believe that if we do not commit ourselves to that type of political struggle, then we will find ourselves with a general political solution over which we have no control, over which the working class has no control, and thus with a political solution that will have certainly taken place apart from the workers’ interest. The alternative is that we engage ourselves completely in the struggle over wages and conditions, and subsequently, perhaps, take the struggle to the Andreotti-Malagodi government, forgetting that there is a corresponding initiative by big capital against the same type of governmental solution. We could also do this. However, in my opinion, doing this does not achieve a concrete political result; we carry on the type of struggle that is underway today, namely, the struggle against the Andreotti-Malagodi government that says: “No, we do not even want to hear what Agnelli is saying, because this is not the problem today; the problem is that of resolving the great national problems, the problem of the Mezzogiorno, etc., as an alternative to the initiative, or in the absence of initiative from big capital.”6 The problem is posed, and I pose it as a serious one: in a capitalist society, can a struggle be successful without making positive, practical reference to the only policy capable of achieving a concrete result, that is, to the one managed by big capital?

Debate (Continued)

Intervention: It seems to me that something else lies behind many of the questions that have been posed. That is, why do you not believe an entirely worker-based initiative concerning the problem of the state is possible? Why is there no prospect of a head-on clash in your argument? Or, why do you think it is destined to be defeated?

Intervention: May I respond? There is a single limit, or one way in which Tronti’s argument fails to coincide with reality. In the second definition that he has given of the relation between the working class and its organizations – that the working class concedes a certain autonomy to its own organization – even with this correction, a gap remains between the working class and the organizations that the working class currently supports. Given this premise, what is it that fails to coincide? Tronti says that the working class can also accept this terrain and can struggle there; or, rather, now he says that the working class accepts the terrain of the open confrontation. I would say instead that this is precisely what is not happening; hence the justification for not seeing the possibility of this direct, open confrontation. We are no longer in 1969.7 We are in 1972, when the situation is quite different. Back then, some thought that the moment of the clash had arrived. Today, this certainly not the case. But even less can it be said that today the working class is ready to renounce its immediate class interest, which is still that of the contract, because the working class is not doing so. Nor is it inclined to struggle in support of this partisan capitalist plan to modernize the state. Why? Because, once again, it lacks its own instrument. Tronti’s argument presupposes that the working class has regained its own organizational instrument. At present, an organizational instrument of its own is something that the working class does not have. And so, once again, there is the ambiguous situation of whether to accept the capitalist provocation or not. Agnelli, while making his grand speeches, directly provokes the working class into open confrontation, since he knows how these things happens. But the working class at FIAT responds to him with a “no.” If you all had experienced the climate of 1969, when the working class directly anticipated the limits, modalities, and deadlines, when it did all that it did. Today, we are seeing instead that it does not accept the battle, neither on the terrain of reforms nor at the level of the contract. It already prefigures, if you will, these relations with everything else; it is already renouncing its own class interests, despite what Tronti said earlier about it being unable to renounce them. However, in practice, this is how it is behaving. The spirit of battle is not there among the workers, at least not that I can see, from the kind of relationship that I have with FIAT workers. If the capitalist referent is still Agnelli, the working-class referent remains the FIAT workers. Let’s not go looking elsewhere. And so, I would say that the topic needs to be reintroduced in these terms. There is no prospect of a clash, there is not even the prospect of a working-class use of the state, because before taking control of the state – and this Tronti said – before managing to influence the transformation of the state, it is necessary for the working class to transform its own organization. If not, this does not work.

Bobbio: I am, along with the group of researchers who invited Tronti, specifically interested in the topic of the autonomy of the political. I ask myself whether we all have a sufficiently clear idea of what this formulation means, a formulation repeated today by almost everybody, a bit like a slogan. It is simply an expression with which one polemicizes, with which one reacts to a preceding formulation derived from one of the possible interpretations of Marx, which Tronti stressed: namely, of the non-autonomy of the political, of the political as dependent. This is the problem to which, in some way, we must respond: is the political independent or dependent? I am not completely convinced that we can talk about the autonomy of the political simply because, as Tronti put it, there is a kind of nearly constant asynchrony between the economic structure and the political system, in the sense that the political system is sometimes too far ahead, and usually too far behind. It seems to me, in essence, that if we want to bring the discussion back to the point which Tronti has expressed, we must start again from here. We must find out if the concept of autonomy may be interpreted in this sense, that is, in the sense of their being two parallel histories, as Tronti has said, that do not always coincide, that perhaps almost never coincide, because the political system may at times be more advanced and at times further behind. It would be interesting to know exactly what it means that the political system is more advanced, and in which cases it can be said that the political system is more advanced. Because the case that we have used as an example – the reference to the Italian political system – is a case in which the political system is behind. For which historical events can we say that the political system is more advanced? Do we refer, for example, to the great political personalities who in some way anticipated the times? Are we alluding to Cavour, to Bismarck, to the Bonapartist system? If we do not give examples, it is difficult to understand exactly what it means to say that the political system is more advanced than the economic system. On the other hand, it is relatively clear what it means to say that the political system lags behind the economic system. Now, I wonder if we can resolve this problem of the autonomy of the political in these delays, these divergences. It seems to me that these divergences could also be considered merely a proof of the political system’s potential independence from the economic system. But as a pure and simple proof, it does not explain to us why.

It is precisely this question that I am posing. If we were to admit no divergence, if we were to suppose that coincidence, adaptation, and correspondence do exist between the political system and the economic system, would we be saying, in this case, that the political system is autonomous, or that it is not? I ask myself whether the proof of autonomy is given merely by the divergences, or whether we suppose that adaptation never happens. But, if there is adaptation, does this mean that the political system is not autonomous? Naturally, I do not have an answer. For me a series of questions is simply suggested by this approach to the problem, one which appears extremely interesting, but which, at the same time, must be deepened and clarified. From the historical point of view, I wonder if the expression “autonomy” does not end up being too strong, if we are only certain that we are dealing with a gap, a divergence, and sometimes even the possibility of coincidence. This may be the case especially when we then maintain that even the backwardness of the political system with respect to the economic system is functional to the economic system. If this is the case, this then means that the political system is never autonomous, in the sense of being independent: if ‘‘it serves to,” if it is “a function of,” then this means that it is dependent.

Now, whence does this theory of the autonomy of the political emerge? It emerges from the crisis of the liberal state, the transition from the liberal state to the welfare state, to the social state, to the Keynesian state.8 In other words, it emerges from the crisis of that state which is considered to be something instrumental with respect to civil society, from the crisis of the ideology of civil society’s primacy over the state – an ideology shared by all political philosophy of the previous century, both by those critics of capitalist society like Marx, and by its apologists, including Spencer in particular. The state, for Spencer, is only a very small instrument, one that must ensure that civil society, by means of economic laws, is able to function as well as possible. Therefore, during the period of the formation of the liberal state, the ideological effect of this situation, both for critics and apologists of this state, was that the state was an instrument of civil society and therefore not autonomous. We can thus clearly understand Marx’s position during that particular period. Marx’s formulation is clearly a reaction to its perfect opposite. Because up until Marx, that is, up until Hegel, the dominant political theory was that of political primacy: all political theory, all classical political philosophy, from Hobbes to Marx, is theory of political primacy. The overturning happens at the beginning of the 19th century, when bourgeois society begins to liberate itself from the state. But up until Hegel, the state has primacy: civil society is nothing more than an ensemble of relations of a more or less transitory character, whose unification is achieved in the state. Therefore, at the beginning of the previous century, we have this overturning: from the primacy of the state we pass to the primacy of civil society over the state (Saint-Simon, etc.). The theory of the young Marx is embedded in this context. Thus, we can also understand why Marx would have emphasized this overturning, to the point of marginalizing the state a bit too much. We understand this precisely because this is the situation, this is the moment – from the viewpoint of both ideology and reality – of civil society throwing off its chains at the beginning of the industrial revolution, and this is what poses the problem in these terms. The state appears simply as a means for realizing the forces that develop in civil society in the best way possible.

On the other hand, the theory of the autonomy of the state emerges when we pass from the liberal state to the welfare state, when, through universal suffrage and mass mobilization, something more than what had been demanded of the liberal state is demanded of the state: intervention in the economy, and measures of a social character, which prompt the development of an enormous administrative apparatus. The function of the classical liberal state was simply of a penal character (the police state, etc.). Strictly speaking, the administrative apparatus could have even disappeared. Once a whole series of services came to be demanded of the state, services which then are also political mediations, there emerges the ideology of the autonomy of the political. Therefore, the autonomy of the political can mean, simply, that the demand that is made of the state has changed, and so the apparatus of the state has changed as well.

What seems interesting to me is the following point: how does one prove – because I maintain that autonomy today is merely an ideology – that the state is truly autonomous? What can that actually mean, concretely? What kinds of concrete research can we do to test this formula, in order to transform it from ideology into theory? I believe that this cannot be done unless through specific investigation into what are called a system’s outputs, in other words a system’s decisions.9 That is, we must take a specific period of a system – for example, the Italian political system of the sixties – and see what political decisions were made by the government, by parliament, and by the administrative system. It is a matter of seeing which decisions were made by each of these three centers of power, and what relation exists between these decisions, the demands that come from or are filtered by the parties, and the demands that come, so to speak, from the grassroots. To me this seems to be the fundamental point in terms of giving empirical – if we want, historical – evidence for what can be considered today the autonomy of the political.

Intervention: I have some objections to Tronti’s argument, which in truth is a very capable attempt to say something new and coherent.10 In my opinion, however, his reverence for Marxism-Leninism prevents him from making a leap toward a completely new position, a new position that would perhaps run the risk of theoretical adventurism, but which would definitively escape the 19th century, or better, the kingdom of utopia.

Regardless of one’s intention, when bringing up the discussion of winning power, the question inevitably emerges – not among us, but socially, at a general level – of the alternative state model, thus opening the floodgates to all the ideologies that have sedimented around the working class. Whether we like it or not, this is the situation. It also turns out to be difficult to distinguish this discussion from the two proposed forms of winning state power that have been proposed historically: the social democratic type (as Tronti defined it, surreptitiously entering the state machine), and Lenin’s smashing of the state machine. I do not want to say tertium non datur, that it is useless to seek a third way. But the problem today is knowing whether to pursue this path by branching off from one of the two classical approaches, or by reconnecting them, or by looking elsewhere. Tronti correctly proposes the “political party of the working class” as the tool for this, with the working class then conceding autonomy to this party for the conquest of political power. But what is missing is precisely this party. I do not say this because of the banal observation that the PCI does not correspond to this model. If this were the case, the problem would merely shift, because the problem would then become that of forcing the Communist Party to return to this model. I do not want to raise the kinds of objections that may spontaneously emerge here for those who have a minimal knowledge of the reality of the PCI, of the chances of realizing this goal, because one could respond that doing politics also means fighting for goals that are difficult to achieve – otherwise, what would be the point? The objection that I do want to make concerning Tronti’s argument, however – which in part takes up the terms of Bologna’s presentation – this party proposal cannot be realized on the shore to which his own theoretical journey had brought him.11 What I mean to say is that a Lenin in Detroit is not even remotely thinkable.12 In other words, I noticed the following contradiction in Tronti’s argument: at the level of the relation between capital and state, he has chosen the most advanced international dimension; while at the level of political proposal, he has unfortunately kept to a purely national level. Naturally, someone could respond to this by saying that he and we find ourselves acting in this country, or needing or wanting to act politically here. But it is precisely for this reason that I believe certain things are underestimated in the discussion of the autonomy of the political from capital.

In particular, this discussion underestimates capitalist survivals and their weight on the state. I certainly do not want to lend credibility, here, to the discussion concerning reaction of a fascist type. But it is necessary to take account of the extent to which these survivals carry a certain weight at the level of state institutions. This is the case in Italy, but it is even more the case at the international level, where different modes of production coexist, from the Asiatic mode of production to nomadism to tribalism. It is true that in order to fully grasp the contradiction, we must consider it where it is fully developed, and so we must consider the autonomy of the political as a contradiction entirely internal to capital. On this point, it would perhaps be useful to reconsider one element from Bologna’s critical discussion of the chemical industry. The chemical sector, with its high organic composition of capital, is a part of capital that tends readily toward obsolescence, due to its resistance to technological innovation. That is, a chemical plant, once constructed, cannot be converted gradually; it can only be replaced totally. In a car factory, on the other hand, the factory’s own obsolete machines can be rebuilt continually, and techniques and models can be modified. The production of ethylene can only produce ethylene. They can replace parts of the machinery, but not the entire productive cycle. It is true that this cannot be done in the mechanical industry either. But we can say that it presents the highest degree of elasticity with respect to technological innovation – and, in any case, we are not interested in discussing new ways of making cars.

Here I also want to briefly mention another argument made by Bologna, regarding the ghettoization of the working class as a prospect induced by passive bench-sitting [dal panchinismo]. And I do not say this to be ironic, but to take a clear step toward putting the old schemas into crisis – in this case, the Leninist one. Is Bologna’s argument not perhaps an attempt in extremis to save the spirit of Lenin? Look at how this framework understands the American working class; there you find yourself once again meeting “the people.” The only way to bring Lenin to Detroit is to hypothesize a declassing of the working class into the people, and of the revolution into the ghetto. Indeed, let’s say that the only place where Lenin has landed in America has been the ghetto, where indeed the terns are not those of class struggle but only of the struggle against white imperialism, oppressor of racial minorities. If we look closely, once again we see that the shortcoming lies not in foolish epigones, but in the master himself. Lenin was not even able to make landfall in England, because he never made an argument that concerned the working class as it existed, instead focusing his arguments on the working class to be created.

Let’s take the line of the Third Congress of the Communist International, and let’s review how the Russian model was exported – not in the bad sense in which it had been understood in those days by extremists (as the Bolshevization of the communist parties), but in the sense of a proposal made to the precapitalist countries for a rapid or at least more accelerated transformation into capitalist countries.13 Obviously, this argument cannot but interest the working class, for it concerns its own growth. But when this argument is affixed like a straitjacket to the already developed working class, it simply refuses it. It is true that there are middle points of development. But it is precisely here that the Leninist proposal has played its role as a brake to maximum effect. I will reintroduce, here, the schema already put forward in the debate with Bologna. The autonomy of political capital is certainly the new form of the capitalist cycle, but these cyclical crises of the new capital result from the autonomy of the working class from its own historical organizations. Capital is forced to assume political functions in the first person (see Agnelli) because the working class has already managed to detach from its own organizations at a global level; it is already moving on a political terrain.

We cannot fail to see that the tactical agility which Tronti attributes to the new party has already been achieved by the global working class. The transition, from the wage terrain to the struggle against work, took place before our eyes from the moment the struggle over wages prevailed. The FIAT workers today struggle not for the wage, but against work. They have not abandoned the wage terrain; they have only set it aside temporarily, because they know that today they cannot obtain more than capital is disposed to give – which, by the way, coincides almost entirely with what the workers’ party requests today. Absenteeism is not a way to prise open capital, but a form of struggle by the working class that does not break it down into a ghettoized, do-nothing proletariat, precisely because it is a tactical choice by the working class, which will shift back again onto the wage terrain just as soon as the occasion presents itself.

This terrain allows us to better see how the Western working class has achieved homogeneity with the working class of the socialist countries, which has for years been making this type of choice, which I would define as strategic, to struggle against work. This explains the encounter between the great systems, and the attempt by the Soviet power to move its own working class onto the wage terrain. This may also happen. But the working class will also come to that tactical agility in the transition from one terrain of struggle to the other.

At this point, what else can be said about the autonomy of the working class from its own political forms, but that this autonomy also concerns us, in terms of proposing and re-proposing models of political organization? At this point, then, does only the contemplation of the real remain? I would say “no,” in the sense that the only real objective that we can set for ourselves is to definitively liberate the working class from the ideological and political incrustations that have accumulated on top of it – from the ideology of the working class as party, as well. We must, in other words, definitively liberate ourselves from this constraining pair, “political = party.” We must definitively liquidate this 19th-century survival of the party. What then remains? The working class on the one hand, capital on the other, both autonomous from their own institutions, confronting each other directly, without mediations or distortions. And the state? Here too, if we want clarity, we must avoid falling back into old Marxist-Leninist theories. We must accept the converse of that rejection of a mechanistic relation of identity between structure and superstructure; in other words, we must accept the partisan capitalist argument, indeed, of the state as mediator of class conflicts. This does not mean that we must accept the state as it is, much less should we offer alternatives. We should instead see how the conflict between the two classes can alter the state.

Intervention: The point in the social model that you presented to us yesterday that seems to me to be the most difficult, the most forced, concerns the relation between the working class and the workers’ movement, and the type of autonomy that should exist between the workers’ movement (party and union) and the working class itself. According to what you have said, while the working class at the level of the factory – that is, at the level of the relations of production – should preserve its conflictual power and anticapitalist aggressiveness in unaltered form, at the level of the political system, at the level of the autonomy of the political, the working class should achieve autonomy from its organization, and grant its organizations sufficient space for the project of workers’ management of the state. What is really difficult for me to reconcile is this long chain of mediations through which, on the one hand, the working class struggles against capital – not against backward capital, but against capital that is historically up-to-date – while on the other hand, at the other pole of the chain of mediations, it oversees an operation to functionalize capital itself, which is the same type of political body that it is struggling against in the relations of production.

If the relation between the workers’ movement and the state becomes a relation of management, of rationalization, of eliminating a whole series of capitalist delays, it seems to me that the chain of mediations is really far too long, and that it has at its extremes two facts that are mutually contradictory, which therefore cannot be resolved simply with this formulation of the autonomy of the working class from its organizations. At this point, I am unable to understand what relation there is, if one exists at all, between the working class and the workers’ movement; it is far too long a chain of delegation.

Intervention: It is difficult to speak without asking questions, but let’s try. The point around which the entire discussion turns is this one, namely, the autonomy of the political on the workers’ side from the working class [l’autonomia del politico di parte ope­raia dalla classe operaia]. In my opinion, this is the fairly logical consequence of a specific point that was made, correctly, regarding past experiences of the workers’ movement. When writing about Lenin one says that he does not strictly begin from class interest, that he does not begin from struggles nor does he want to begin from struggles, but that, if anything, he struggles on a terrain common to the two classes – this, if I have understood correctly, may be analogous to the situation in which we might locate the workers’ movement today, at a time when there is a certain type of reform of the capitalist state, in the sense of a capitalist updating of the state. In this case, perhaps it is true that the workers’ movement can carry forward this type of model independent of its link to struggles.

But the point is another: this initiative by the workers’ movement to renovate the state gives rise to two doubts. First, do we see in the workers’ movement today a specific historical formation capable of bearing this weight? Second, are the formations which exist today capable of carrying this forward without blocking or pushing back the level of workers’ struggle? Are there today, in Italy, formations that can guarantee they are able to pursue this path with minimal ties, assuring returns for the working class?

If not, then my question is: what type of political work can be done here to promote this sort of prospect – which may be one that we can accept, as well as one that is tactically correct? Here I agree largely with what Gobbi said earlier, that is, that the only type of political work to do at this point might be one of removing incrustations, of carry out a violent struggle against ideology with regard to these historical organizations.14 And then all these discussions – from class autonomy, to absenteeism, to industrialization – could be taken up again afterward. For a project of this kind to be practical, for us, today, it must proceed according to this path, because I cannot find a way to continue this discussion with the minimum, requisite assurance that it would then come back, would then return, to the class.

Intervention: To me it seems undeniable that, not only in Italy but at an international level also, there are divergences between, let’s say, the organizations of the working class, and the working class itself – divergences that are increasing. Let’s leave the Italian case aside for a moment. If we consider the international level, we see that it is true now more than ever that the organizations of the workers’ movement are really transmission belts passing capital’s needs through the working class.

But also, in Italy in recent years, and today more than ever, the activities of the Communist Party are no different; essentially, the problem of the Communist Party is that of continually reducing the working class from a political class to an economic category, even passing through structural reforms and the reform of the state itself. Moreover, we can discuss the extent to which the Communist Party represents the working class as a whole. In my opinion, there is a growing divergence between the needs of the mass of deskilled workers and the worker stratum that finds expression in the PCI. The PCI does not represent the reality of the deskilled worker anymore. Or better, all the efforts to rationalize the PCI – and in this regard I would like to ask Tronti how his proposal diverges, concretely, from the rationalization underway inside the PCI – end up crashing into the following contradiction: namely, that in order to reform the state, society must directly oppose the workers’ struggle against work; and, from this point of view, in my opinion, we must ask what it then means to say that the working class delegates tasks to its own organization (provided that it is its own organization), and to what extent it may instead be true that it is capital that delegates to the PCI, to the party that was once the party of labor, the task of representing capital itself, of being the transmission belt, of being part of the state.

Intervention: Let’s begin from the hypothesis that there is today a battle being waged by advanced capital to rationalize the state that coincides with the interests of the working class. Above all, it should be clear that this convergence, if it exists, does not entail the working class abandoning its terrain of struggle in order to shift to another terrain – if anything, it is something more. Secondly, we must add that, in the question of capital’s rationalization of the state, there are many things from which the working class certainly does not derive immediate benefit. This demand for rationalization is made in order to eliminate a series of dysfunctions at the level of civil society that have repercussions on productivity in the factory.

To find a coincidence of interests, we must look for it on another type of terrain. That is, the question of the rationalization of the state means, above all, the elimination of guilds, of privileges, within the state apparatus. Therefore, it would mean the introduction of waged labor into the state, and thus the entrance of the forms, methods, and even sometimes the contents of working-class struggle. All this could be a new terrain – but in the long-term, because, in the short-term, I do not see how this demand for rationalization can lead to immediately verifiable results.

Another type of coincidence might be found in the demand for a resumption of industrialization, which is put forward by various groups – in other words, a resumption of industrialization primarily as the enlarged reproduction of the working class, and thus also the enlarged reproduction of the type of working-class antagonism that today exists in the large firms. Perhaps it is precisely on this terrain that we can find a form that coincides with the working-class interest. Essentially, we have a demand for a state, for a political stratum that is at the level of highly advanced capital and thus, if you like, the level of the most advanced workers’ struggles, the level of the most developed class relation. What is not clear to me, however, is how we may come to take this away from capital. The passivity of the working class should teach us something here: passivity is a stimulus for capital to take the initiative on this terrain, to show its hand.

I wanted to ask something else: in his talk, Tronti spoke only of capital’s mediation with itself, with the elderly strata of capital. Now, is this really the case, or is it not also true that capital often also mediates with precapitalist interests? Tronti took it for granted that, fundamentally, precapitalist strata no longer exist. If it is true that everything has been incorporated into the cycle of capital, it is nevertheless impossible to refer everything back to capital. Regarding the problem of the political underdevelopment [sottosviluppo] of Italy in general, I have the impression that even the most advanced section of capital tends to think that this may not be a problem that can be resolved on an Italian scale. Agnelli continues to insist that the problem of Italian underdevelopment – not simply economic underdevelopment– can be resolved only in a wider European context, as a regional problem. This should then lead us to shift the discussion onto a wider terrain, where the mediations of the classical institutions of the workers’ movement work less well, if one excludes the unions.

I would also request a clarification: Tronti always speaks of big capital. Is it only a question of dimensions, or does big capital mean advanced capital? Montedison is also big capital; however, and not by chance, certain demands for rationalization have not come from Montedison in the way that they have from other sectors of big capital.15

Intervention: This question of the autonomy of the political, which leaps out at every turn – what does it really mean? It can mean many things. First, I will try to say something very obvious, which is neither white nor black, neither bourgeois nor proletarian: that is, today the state has some tasks of mediation with respect to different levels of capital and especially in relation to the working class and capital, and this results in a certain autonomy of the political. This seems to me an open secret. Or it may indicate something else, namely that the old relation established by Marxists between structure and superstructure is no longer valid; in the sense that we no longer have one structure and one superstructure but, in reality, two structures, to the point of being turned on its head, making it possible for a control over capital by the institutions, and so on. To me, this seems to be the argument that flows from the Mensheviks, to Liu Shaoqi, and right up to the PCI – so I would like some clarification on this.

However, the autonomy of the political means something else, because it seems to me that there are historical phases in which the autonomy of the political asserts itself, that is, phases of intense transformation, revolutionary phases. Leninism, Maoism – what are they if not confirmations of the autonomy of the political relative to the economic, of the insurgence of a subjective will of the masses relative to reality? From this angle, the autonomy of the political is the revolution. And this is the only sense in which I can accept this concept of the autonomy of the political. Actually, I would go further: the only aspect of Lenin that seems acceptable to me today is precisely this aspect of the autonomy of the political, of the primacy of politics. Everything else – and I am in agreement with Gobbi – is no longer of use. However, Gobbi said something interesting that is worth discussing: that is, it seems to me that Gobbi did not speak so much of the autonomy of the political, but of autonomy from the political, in the sense that, when capitalism recognizes the inadequacy of institutions, it assumes the task of doing politics in the first person. Gobbi also added that there is working-class autonomy from the political, that is, a withdrawal [ritrarsi] of the working class from the political, understanding the political as the switchboard of the existing society. This withdrawal of the working class from the political is evidently a new way in which the working class does politics. I believe that this is the basic concept for understanding all recent history, and the concept from which we must begin our analysis.

One final thing, and I think that this may be a question that must be posed directly to Tronti. Tronti must explain whether a difference exists or not between the things that he has said –  and perhaps I have understood nothing, and then he can call me a cretin, and tell me as much – how what he has said relates or does not relate to the theories of the Mensheviks, to Liu Shaoqi, to Berlinguer, etc. I really think that I must have seriously misunderstood him, because these things seemed almost indistinguishable to me.


Tronti: We must reclaim this well-known term, by now somewhat abused, of the “autonomy of the political.” We must at this point take it up again in very critical terms, as we also consider the contributions that have been made by everyone here.

For now, this should be said: the title of this paper – “autonomy of the political” – is the title of one of the theses belonging to this group of young researchers; and so it was a title lifted from this text with which not all of you are familiar. At this point, I would say: let’s submit this term to critique – and not only the term, but the concept. This critique, in my opinion, ultimately suggests that we abandon the term. Why? Because it is a term that runs the risk of salvaging an old theme, whereas the entire argument behind it and lying within it tended – if anything –  in the opposite direction. It aimed to identify new paths for research – not yet new paths for practical action (and to this point we will return) – paths for research that are new in relation to a certain tradition, the tradition that we have polemically called orthodox Marxism, within which we are including even so-called revolutionary Marxism. I think that we are all more or less in agreement on this: given that there is so much talk of modernization, we find ourselves confronted with the necessity also of modernizing certain analytical tools handed down to us by what is now also, unfortunately, a cultural tradition. And this tradition, which is accepted by increasing numbers of people today (to the point of entering academies and universities with full honors) – this cultural tradition is the Marxist tradition itself, with all its terminology, with its entire conceptual framework.

Sometimes, while working on an analysis, we come to the realization that this terminology, this conceptual framework does not help but instead harms us. We see that it represents a block for research, an obstacle that we must, from time to time, overcome. Let’s take up, then, the path of renewal, renewing certain analytical and conceptual tools as well, at the risk of putting into question those to which we are most attached – not so much the Marxist tradition, but the classical paternity of this tradition: namely, the figure and the work of Marx himself. In our talk, we made this explicit perhaps for the first time, even if there had been a few, barely acknowledged digs against these forefathers (the parricide, as you all will recall); for the first time we specified how some of these conceptualizations might be abandoned. We found a weak point in these conceptualizations precisely in the theory of politics – which is to say, in the critique of politics in the Marxian mold. There we saw the root of what came later in this tradition of political studies, in that not much more was added to what was, in my view, quite thin in Marx, with regard to to the so-called critique of politics.

Now, leaping from this to the opposite, that is, employing terminology that is exactly opposite to this – as is precisely the case with the term “autonomy” – runs risks. These risks were evident in our discussion. The term takes all our subject matter – our entire problem – and falsifies it somewhat, leading us to organize our entire reasoning around concepts and themes that are not our own, themes that we recognize as those of our adversary – even if we then situate them within an alternative culture, with alternative terminologies and conceptual frameworks. I think that we can easily abandon this term, recognizing that there may also be an ideological form within it, an ideologization of it at the hands of bourgeois culture and ideology; recognizing that there may also be a trace of political utopia in this concept. And this is something that is foreign to a critique of politics as we understand it, a critique which indeed opposes two things: the ideological process and the utopian solution.

We must always guard against such outcomes of research, because they are the same ones into which working-class thought has so often fallen, the same ones which then exercised such fateful influence over the practical modes of working-class action.

But can a theoretical definition be given for this concept of the autonomy of the political? Here the first doubts arise. The problem is: does this autonomy always exist, or does it exist only in certain instances? Is there autonomy of the political when the institutions lag or when they are advanced with respect to everything else? Alternatively, can we speak of autonomy even when the two, well known, parallel histories coincide? In my view, leaving the term “autonomy” aside, the specific difference between these two terrains – their divergence, their separation – owes its existence to capitalist society, and to my eyes, it looks as though it should exist in any case. In other words, it is not only the delay or the bolting forward of the political with respect to the social that underscores its specificity; rather, its specificity is a fact of nature, I would say – a material fact – that historically characterizes bourgeois political institutions and the political stratum operating within it. This is the qualification that I would be tempted to offer. At any rate, we can grasp this specificity, which indeed explains both the fact that there is a delay, and the fact that there is a bolting forward. It can explain what then interests us further, namely, that this specificity can be used for a practical, alternative project: a use of political institutions that is separate from the use that capital normally makes of its society, its social relations, its relations of production – which we, in any case, would not be able to take from capital.

A notable feature that, in my opinion, must be emphasized, is the following: at the level of the relations of production, of social relations, we cannot think of the working class being in a position of dominance; although, yes, we may have cases – we have had cases, historically – in which the relations of force between the two classes within the relations of production are favorable to the working class. (We have had some historical cases of this type, and it was no coincidence that these were those we considered, that we went on to uncover; in some cases, we reread certain forms of the American working class’s struggle, revisiting these in a certain key – and a certain Italian working class of the sixties can also be of assistance here.) So, in some historically specific cases, we have a relation of force favorable to the working class within the relations of production and thus even in the general social relations. However, these are entirely particular historical cases. We cannot say that there is a specific opportunity for working-class domination in the relations of production because, specifically and historically, in the entire process of capitalist society’s development, we have seen that the relations of production are dominated by a single side: they are dominated by capital. In my view these cases cannot be dominated over the long term, historically, strategically, by the working class. On the basis of the struggle within the relations of production, the working class can win only occasionally; strategically it does not win, and strategically, in every case, it is the dominated class.

It is true that from this perspective we can produce a new history of the relations of production, such that we can say that, within the history of capitalist society, there is not one class which always dominates and another that is always dominated. This simple vision of a capitalist society, in which the working class, insofar as it is always exploited, is always the subordinate class, is a false history, in my view. We must also consider the moments within the history of capitalist society where this has not been the case.

What thus emerges is a concept of capitalist society that differs from what was in part assumed, here too, on the basis of tradition. What emerges is the concept of a capitalist society which is moving, in political terms as well, at a foundational level, in other words at the level of the factory – in accordance with a scientific concept of the factory. However, I repeat, under no circumstances can we think of strategic, working-class domination over the relations of production. We must, therefore, necessarily shift the terrain of the discussion once more.

The discussion of the specificity of the political terrain within capitalist society aims, in theoretical terms (because we are, unfortunately, operating at a theoretical level of discussion; unfortunately, we can but manipulate concepts – even if we wanted to, we could not manipulate and move the classes, for we are here, confined to these roles), to grasp how within capitalist society this specificity of the political terrain, if we allow such a thing, can provide the opportunity for political domination over a certain period, over a long period – thus according to a truly strategic plan – not only and always for capital, but also for its direct antagonist. It is no coincidence that revolutionary Marxism has moved onto this terrain. What the last comrade was saying is correct: if one can say that the autonomy of the political was not merely theorized but practiced by anyone, it was in those moments of revolutionary rupture that actually took place and succeeded, even if only in immediate terms, even if strategically they were recomposed into something else. In other words, what we are calling the specificity of the political terrain has coincided in certain cases with a revolutionary act. And this is because every time we pose the problem of a real, effective transformation of the relations of capitalist production, which is to say a real change, and so assume a position of subversion, of a revolutionary character – at that moment, what comes to the fore is, once again, inevitably, the political terrain. Because at that moment we must get to grips with the only terrain on which we can establish a relation of force, not momentarily in a contract negotiation, but on the basis of a strategic, long-term vision.

We can strategically plan for long-term dominance only on this political terrain, that is, only if we take from capital its real apparatus of power, in other words, its state. Emphasizing this problem, this specificity of the political in the cases in which it functions – or better, in the cases in which it has functioned – also means relating politically to historical events that have coincided with immediately victorious, revolutionary action.

In what sense, then, should this kind of terminology – of using the political terrain – be reclaimed? I think it needs to be adopted in a particular sense. If today we are to choose this specifically political terrain, we are only able to do so if we intend to make it endure over a long time, setting aside all ideology, every chance revolutionary ideological apparatus. That is, we cannot reintroduce the problem as it was advanced by certain past models of revolution. Why? Because the situation today is no longer the same, and because historical experiences have taught us that, in those places where revolution has assumed the specificity of the political in the proper sense – but on the basis of particular missed opportunities, on the basis of the capitalist political stratum’s imperfect mediation, in need of replacement precisely for this reason – precisely in those cases there have been immediate revolutionary successes, tactical victories, but over the long term strategic defeats. Because, once again, in those cases they had come to terms only with this specificity of the political. In other words, they had not come to new terms with the relations capable of intervening between capital and this specificity of the political, in other words, between capital and its state. Perhaps in those cases the autonomy of politics was overstated. Perhaps it was overstated in their gambling on only one terrain. In other words, they did not see how this use of the political terrain could be victorious in the long run, as it simultaneously coincided with a capitalist interest and, once again, on the other hand, with a working-class interest. Here we arrive at a knot of problems which, in my view, is very confusing, but which once untied may help us to understand things better.

We must first begin from a fact. Up to this point in our research we have had a conception of capitalist society that I would call monotheistic. We therefore did little to renew the Marxist tradition which today we claim to be criticizing. For the Marxian schema said that what drives everything is the invisible hand of the structure, of the structural movements, of the economic relations, of the relations of production; this was the single engine that drives everything else. So what did we do? We followed the sign of the relations of production and, instead of saying relations of production, we said that, within the relations of production, there is one thing that drives them, and which thus drives everything else; and that what drives everything is precisely wage labor, the working class. So we replaced the subject, the engine of the machine; but we preserved this concept of the single engine, of this single god of capitalist society, which for us was not the relations of production in general, but the working class in particular.

The more capitalist society moves forward and the more it matures, the more it becomes an extremely complex reality. It is not by chance that we spoke of machinery, of big capital at the level of large-scale machinery. We did not do so to suggest certain ideologies, of pluralism and the like, but because, actually, capitalist society is something more complex – not only in appearance, but precisely in its moving reality. It is something that within itself contains different terrains, and which never resolves once and for all the predominance of one terrain over the others.

We can even say that there is never an unequivocal class domination, not even within capitalist society. In other words, it is not true that the capitalist class always rules and the rest are always ruled. There are some moments, some occasions when this process can be overturned. Thus we must think of capitalist society as something in which there are a number of engines running at the same time; and we must take them all into account if we want political action with concrete meaning, in other words, if we want a chance to practically realize the goals that we seek. This is what we were talking about yesterday: the political capacity to play on more than one table, and to understand that, while the relations of production are certainly of fundamental importance, and while at certain moments and during certain historical phases they turn out to be the primary issue to be resolved, during other phases, we see that this is not the case. During other phases, we see that there are obstacles within the relations of production themselves, which prevent them from exploding in the ways in which we think they could and should explode. These issues, these obstacles, derive from other terrains.

Therefore, the relation between capital and its state is another terrain that we must always take into account, because in certain specific cases it may be the dominant problem, the political terrain to be privileged, not only in order to achieve an immediate rupture, but precisely in order to achieve a strategic recomposition of our entire movement. In my opinion, this particular moment – not only an Italian one, but an international one (we will clarify this too) – tells us that today there is a displacement of the political terrain from one point to another. This means that a different terrain should be privileged, compared to what we favored in our previous research as well as in some of our previous political activity. When we theorized certain things – the strategic overturning, labor driving everything – what did we do? It is not that we invented things. We only saw the reflection of a determinate reality that was nothing but an empirical and material reality, whose validity increased the more it expressed a determinate moment of the class struggle specifically in Italy. This was the strength of those theoretical discoveries. However it was simultaneously their limit, in that they were abstractions that we derived perhaps too immediately from the particular reality we had before our eyes. The mediation, in other words, was too weak in that case; the chain of mediations was too short.

There are certain moments when, instead, one lengthens the chain of mediations, precisely in order to retrieve a more correct type of abstraction from reality, corresponding more adequately not only to a determinate moment of the class struggle, but to a strategically longer period. The difference is that, whereas at that time we only reflected this type of reality, today we find ourselves before a different situation for the theorist, for the researcher – that is, with this discussion we are trying to anticipate a certain type of reality. This is the point: today, we are not yet at the moment when the political terrain is actually privileged compared to the rest. We are not yet at such a moment, and many of the difficulties in comprehending this discussion derive precisely from this fact: that we still find ourselves within the moment where the class terrain of the struggle, the choice of the relations of production, remains a decisive reality.

In my opinion, there is a residue from the past that persists today. I do not know if saying this would be incorrect, or inexact, but the type of working-class struggle that we see today is the residue of a certain type of working-class struggle that was characteristic of Italy especially during the early sixties. This is so true that we can observe a descending rather than ascending parabola of working-class struggle. However – trusting in the one thing we may have, this more or less valuable capacity for theoretical abstraction – we can instead forecast something else: soon, in the not too distant future, the “political” terrain, that so-called formal terrain, will become the privileged terrain of the class struggle itself. Because, as we have been saying, capital must absolutely, at this point of its development, resolve the problem of its state. This is the fact to which we referred. They find themselves before this political bottleneck of economic development that must be overcome somehow. They will delay for as long as they like; postponement is a political art of the first order, especially within the Italian political stratum – although not only there. I would say that when one does politics in the formal sense one learns to postpone problems, one learns not to confront them head on, and so forth. So, they will be able to postpone and delay this solution as long as is possible and convenient for them. But they find themselves before this political bottleneck: capitalist development of this kind cannot advance without eliminating the state apparatus that stands before it, which no longer corresponds to the current level of capitalist economic development.

This is our forecast. It tells us that when capital decides to shift its action onto that terrain, the whole game of the class struggle inevitably shifts onto that terrain as well. For me, it is even a matter of anticipating capital’s move onto this terrain, of confronting the issue of the political bottleneck and thus the reform of the state order, and of doing so before capital becomes conscious of it and drafts its plan to effectively and concretely realize this reform. Thus, the process – I would not say of reform, but of political revolution of the capitalist state as it is – is a project that the working class must anticipate, today, even with respect to the capitalists’ own need. And this can be done; it can be done concretely, because it is not purely and exclusively a working-class need, because it is also a capitalist need. And so, precisely because it is a capitalist need, it is a substantial, real fact within capitalist society; it is a need which functions materially, which can be pursued in material terms. If capital were not experiencing this problem – someone said this yesterday as well – the opportunity to confront it would not exist. And then we really would fall back into a utopian political framework. What does anticipating this mean? It means acting in such a way that this process of overcoming the political bottleneck does not view the working class as subaltern to capitalist initiative, but views it as hegemonic (if we want to use this word), views it playing what we might call a dominant class role on the political terrain.

In my opinion, the more this transition of the working class to dominant class on the political terrain comes into effect, the more the working class will push the political terrain forward, renouncing the “revolutionary” ideological apparatus. In other words, if today we go around saying that we do not support the project of modernizing the state, or of adapting the state to the productive machine, then we would need to hold onto the exact opposite thesis. We would need to say, once again, that we support the smashing of the state machine. We would need to suggest that we organize – at the grassroots, in the relations of production, and indeed effectively – the conditions for the famous head-on clash. This is the alternative. Now I ask you: where are the organizational mediations for achieving such a leap? Here and only here the organizational medium, the organizational instrument, is lacking, and for a reason we all understand: there is no organization of the workers’ movement available for an action such as this; it cannot exist in the short term, and it is right that it does not exist. It is here that the working class finds itself exposed; it is here that it finds itself without weapons. And you all know what a head-on clash without organization would mean for the working class today. I think that you can all imagine it: it would mean strategic defeat over the long term, a defeat from which it would take decades to recover; a historic prospect for revolution would close, just as it has closed in certain countries.

What happens when we take on the other perspective? When we take on the specificity of the political within a program to reform the state (but here too, unfortunately, we must use words that are inadequate – when one says reform of the state, one thinks of decentralization, of the regions16; I say it in the sense of making the state a productive machine, eliminating bureaucratic incrustations from within the state, making it an agile machine that the working class can use – just as I have always thought of the party of the working class as small arms, as I once said, that is, a structure able to be maneuvered for political struggle), when we accept this terrain of political struggle, we see something strange – which you all say is paradoxical – something that is favorable for a project of this type. We find one level of the workers’ movement – that is, a historical organization of the workers’ movement – that is available for an action of this type. If you think about it carefully, you find that, indeed, the structure of the current workers’ moment is the structure that corresponds to this type of political project. If we ourselves had no party whatsoever, neither a reformist nor a revolutionary one, we would have argued for the creation of a new one (as has been done in other periods), a revolutionary party that would correspond to determinate, grassroots instances of the class. Instead, for a project of this type, we find ourselves before organizational instruments which, owing to past policies and their internal structure, are available for an action of this type. It is a paradoxical historical situation, but it is a paradox to be used.

You all have brought up – and I am in agreement – the advanced level that the class has reached in Italy, and in Europe in general. A level, then, reached by a working class not disarmed but agile, vigilant, perennially in struggle over its concerns – not subaltern, and not willing to become subaltern. On the other hand, we find ourselves before a political project that the working class is clearly not willing to take on until this project is effectively put into action as a program. We cannot expect divinatory faculties from the working class, in the sense that we cannot expect that the working class, from its mystical bosom, foresees determinate possible developments of capital. I am convinced that, when the capitalist side puts this process of attack into action at the political level, so that it might change it, that is, in order to overcome this political bottleneck – at this same moment, and for the same reasons, a relation between the working class and its organizations will come back into play – a relation likewise made of adjustments and leaps. These matters are linked, because this capitalist society is full of articulations – articulations that we must possess in their entirety.

We should not think that, in that moment, there would be some huge shift by the historical organizations to so-called revolutionary positions; let’s not fall into this new kind of ideology, which really is revolutionary only in name. This is not the goal; the problem is a different one. It is that the working class recovers a certain type of relation that is not so much critical or polemical, but one of use, of using the organizations for what they actually are. Not for what they should be, according to the “historic destinies” of the working class tending toward revolution, but for what they are: this structure which, at this moment, can be of service to this transition of a political character. A transition that sees the need to overcome this political bottleneck as something that benefits capital, in the sense that capital needs it, yet which also benefits the working class by enabling it to exit from a basically repetitive process of struggle; that repeats itself at the same level without shifting the relations of force, such that the working class exhausts itself without managing to threaten capitalist society’s overall mechanism of recomposition at the economic and the political level. This is the kind of complex argument that we can make on this point.

An extremely important problem has emerged here; namely, can we do everything as if it were happening here and as if everything could happen only here? In other words, is this really an Italian process, at this moment, in this situation in which particularity no longer exists within capitalist society, or in the concept of the capitalist nation? It is clear that the process has an international character. I would say that this political bottleneck exists for capital at the international level; I do not think that it is a strictly Italian affair. Here we do experience it in specific terms, namely, a macroscopic backwardness of the political stratum relative to its productive apparatus. But this political bottleneck for capital also exists in other countries to a greater or lesser extent.

For too long, capital has lacked political initiative at the international level. For too long, it has lacked what we might call “great initiative,” that is, those rapid thrusts forward that every now and then emerge at the capitalist level. The last of these was the Rooseveltian experience. This, fundamentally, is the historical example that we are thinking of when we speak of the “advancing of the political terrain with respect to society.” It is not so much a question of historical precedent, but of a particular framework in which, on the basis of a network of continual working-class struggles (which there too repeat themselves and exhaust themselves at the level of production), capital was forced to take a political initiative of a general character. That political initiative to stabilize the situation – especially since the great crisis was underway – was successful from the capitalist viewpoint precisely because it did not threaten the entire framework of the situation, precisely because the working at that moment, lacked an existing organizational instrument capable of anticipating the capitalist initiative, of changing it from within, of conditioning it. After this, the process was closed again, in the sense that the capitalist initiative did not remain at that level and the working-class initiative did not leap forward. There was a turning back of the capitalist political terrain, a block of the class struggle itself that retraced pre-crisis, pre-revolutionary paths – we want to conceive that too as one of the many revolutions that take place within capitalist structures. For too long this great political initiative of capital has been lacking. I think that this problem will emerge, must emerge at a certain point. It is not a matter of prophesying; it is a matter of making some hypotheses against which to measure the situation. All hypotheses, often, are wagers, in that we derive a tendency of development from a few events. It is not given that these hypotheses will then be confirmed. Factors may intervene to modify the situation, and it may be the case that none of them are borne out.

For me, our discussion today must establish itself on this terrain, forecasting capital’s tendential assumption of the political initiative at the international level as well, with certain repercussions that may have significant effects here in Italy. We cannot rule out that some countries will move first, and others later. We need not overstate the internationalization of capital. It is not that there is political homogeneity at the international level of capital. However, as an example, the European structure is already something that provides capital with a political structure of determinate form.17 It is likely that we will continue down this path, in some way. It is likely that we will find ourselves before not so much a structure, or an overall international movement, but determinate groups of countries. We must keep an eye on this international situation. We must take into account the degree of movement of German social democracy, which is able to transition to such a political initiative domestically after having consolidated its power through some outward-facing initiatives. In France, a development of this sort cannot be ruled out (I do not wish to say that the unity of the Left is something which we should overly count on). It is possible, in short, that this type of development will be put back in motion, that this entire complex process will come back into play.

To what extent this whole argument is a Menshevik one, I do not know. Perhaps there are some affinities. However, the fact that this was considered by some to be a Menshevik argument, by others to be a Stalinist argument, by others to be a Gramscian argument, etc., means that there are many things in it that are contradictory – which probably means that ideas are in formation. I do not know what the differences are. For me, in rough terms, it does not seem to be a Menshevik argument. I think it is more correct to say that we have recovered the Bolshevik autonomy of the political. But, I repeat, it is a matter of ideas in formation, which we still must put into the melting pot of potential reconsideration, which indeed is something that we all should hope for.

December 5–6, 1972

–Translated by Andrew Anastasi, Sara R. Farris, and Peter D. Thomas

The translators thank Matteo Mandarini for carefully checking the draft and for his many valuable contributions to this presentation in English.

References   [ + ]

1. Translators’ note: In addition to “lagging behind,” the adjective arretrato can also refer to notions of underdevelopment and “backwardness,” as well as to movement backward, to a rollback or a regression. We have inserted the term in brackets here and in instances below when the translation changes to suit the context.
2. TN: Tronti had recently analyzed the capitalist political initiative of the New Deal in his “Postscript” to the second edition of Workers and Capital. See “Postscript of Problems” [1970], in Workers and Capital, trans. David Broder (London: Verso, 2019), 277–326.
3. TN: It should be noted here that the Italian term classe operaia refers specifically to the industrial working class.
4. TN: Bruno Trentin was the leader of Federazione Impiegati Operai Metallurgici (FIOM), the metalworkers’ union. Giovanni “Gianni” Agnelli was the head of the automobile manufacturer FIAT.
5. TN: The second government headed by the Christian Democrat Giulio Andreotti was formed in June 1972, with Giovanni Malagodi of the Liberal Party serving as Minister of Treasury.
6. TN: “Mezzogiorno” (literally, “noon”) refers to the south of Italy.
7. TN: 1969 saw widespread worker and student struggles, known as the “Hot Autumn.”
8. TN: “Welfare state” in English in the original text.
9. TN: “Outputs” in English in the original text.
10. TN: This contribution was likely made by Romolo Gobbi; see note 14 below.
11. Italian editorial note: Sergio Bologna had previously given a paper in the same School at a conference on the industrial cycle of the chemistry industry.
12. TN: One of the sections of Tronti’s 1970 “Postscript” was titled “Marx in Detroit.”
13. TN: See Third Congress of the Comintern, “Guidelines on the Organizational Structure of Communist Parties, on the Methods and Content of their Work” (1921).
14. TN: This almost certainly refers to Romolo Gobbi, a militant who was involved in the experiences of Quaderni Rossi and Classe Operaia and conducted workers’ inquiries at FIAT Turin.
15. TN: Montedison was Italy’s largest industrial producer of chemicals.
16. TN: In 1970, the regions of Italy became administrative units with a degree of devolved power and representation. Hence the issue of le regioni was very much in the air at the time of this seminar.
17. TN: Tronti is referring to the European Economic Community (EEC), the forerunner of the later European Union.

Author of the article

is an Italian philosopher and politician and the author of Workers and Capital (1966). In the 1960s he was a founder of operaismo, an editor of Quaderni Rossi, and the director of Classe Operaia.