“Lenin in England” is the title of an essay by Mario Tronti. It’s not really about England. These are my notes on it, which are almost as long as the essay itself. My old notes on it are here, which I haven’t reviewed yet. I should really try to boil all this down to say 3 paragraphs.
The essay begins with the proclamation that “A new era in the class struggle is beginning.” This kind of claim has become a pet peeve of mine. I just don’t get into epochs and their declarations. It seems to me that epochs are only identifiable with any sort of certainty when viewed looking back. Anyway.
The important bit here is the next sentence, where Tronti declares that the new era is the product of the workers, an imposition by the workers onto the capitalists. The perspective here is a little unclear, though. Is this a matter of whole classes? The working class and the capitalist class have a new relationship now? Or is this a matter of class sectors? Tronti speaks of the workers’ “organized strength in the factories.” A few things are possible here. Perhaps Tronti thinks only factory workers are in the working class. Or perhaps Tronti just means factory workers and factory-owning capitalists (or, perhaps, factory workers and collective capital or the whole capitalist class). Or perhaps Tronti means the whole working class via the factory workers. That aside, the hopefulness here is nice. It appears that the capitalists have the upper hand, but they don’t, though as Tronti notes this is easy not to see.
Tronti characterizes capitalism’s “laws of development” as follows: “economists have invented them, governments have imposed them, and workers have suffered them.” This artifactual and power-laden understanding of laws of development is important, particularly for understanding Tronti’s call to “uncover the laws of development of the working class;” I wonder if Tronti has in mind a similar division of labor, where the party leadership invents them, the organized workers impose them, and the capitalists suffer them. Tronti’s characterization of the working class victorious doesn’t resonate with me, as with basically the same formulation by the STO: “the future dictatorship of the workers organised as the ruling class.” I wish I had a better metaphor than that.
Next comes the big quote, the one that Yann Moulier-Boutang called a “Copernican inversion of Marxism” (in his intro to Negri’s Politics of Subversion). Tronti writes “We too have worked with a concept that puts capitalist development first, and workers second. This is a mistake. And now we have to turn the problem on its head, reverse the polarity, and start again from the beginning: and the beginning is the class struggle of the working class.”
The inversion is ambiguous, though, or maybe simply incomplete or partial and it’s this same ambiguity that runs through the problem I have with post-operaismo. The quote continues:
“At the level of socially developed capital, capitalist development becomes subordinated to working class struggles; it follows behind them, and they set the pace to which the political mechanisms of capital’s own reproduction must be tuned.”
This is problematic to the degree to which it qualifies the first half of the quote. The force of the quote is methodological: start from the working class. Tronti later in the essay calls for a “rigorously one-sided class logic.” Yes, absolutely, but to limit this logic the present – and without argument, only with a vague and theoretical assertion about the nature of the present – strikes me as insufficient. (That said, Tronti’s epochal declaration bothers me a good deal less than that of the post-operaisti, since it starts in 1848 “and possibly even earlier” and continues to the present, which is a good deal different from the – to my mind silly – claims made about the supposed epoch and with the term ‘real subsumption’.)
For those who aren’t as hung up on the past as I am this may be less of a problem, but there may be a second problem with the quote, which is the degree to which it is true. Tronti sums up his “new approach” with the statement that “it is the specific, present, political situation of the working class that both necessitates and directs the given forms of capital’s development.” On the one hand, absolutely! The political composition of the working class is a crucial piece of the capital relation at any point in time. But this doesn’t say very much, really. If the working class is disorganized, this facilitates capital accumulation. If the working class is disorganized via racial hierarchy as with the changing history of white supremacy in the United States, this is an important part of understanding the capital relation and how it changes over time. Those things are true, but it seems odd to say that working class disorganization “directs” capitalist development. That seems to put insufficient power in the hands of capitalists and insufficient efficacy to their plans. That is to say, if this perspective starts from not only working class agency but some level of the working class driving forward capitalist developments, driving it forward in the sense of the capitalist class always reacting, always being forced into some new position (perhaps such that communist society is closer), well, that just seems false to me.
Tronti is right, however, that “the working class viewpoint seeks to find a political explanation” for capitalist developments. As with the earlier quote, capitalism’s laws of development were thought up and implemented through force. As Marx wrote in the section on primitive accumulation, “force (…) is itself an economic power,” and the real point is the reverse: economic power is a form of force and relies upon other forms of force. (Capital v1 915-916.)
Tronti is right about this as well: “[t]he various institutional levels of the official labour movement only create divisions,” though the point is overstated. This was the basic IWW analysis 60 or so years prior to Tronti as well, and of course the analysis of those who formed the IWW based on their previous experiences (one of the most important parts of IWW history it seems to me comes before the IWW, it’s IWW pre-history).
Tronti describes “a transitory situation, in which, in social terms, the workers have already gone beyond the old organisations, but have not yet reached a new organization, a vacuum of political organisation, be it reformist or revolutionary,” this is “ a period of in-between in working class history.” It seems important that this comes after a discussion of working class behavior against capitalism. Those behaviors while “planned” and “organized” and constituting “a political refusal, and a permanent continuity of struggles” are still not what is needed, they are not yet organization. This matches the perspective laid out in the later of the Sojourner Truth Organization documents that I read, on workplace struggle, where they criticize their earlier views for being overly spontaneist.
Along the same lines Tronti writes toward the end of the essay that
“The continuity of the struggle is a simple matter: the workers only need themselves, and the bosses facing them. But continuity of organisation is a rare and complex thing: no sooner is organisation institutionalied into a form, than it is immediately used by capitalism (or by the labour movement on behalf of capitalism). This explains the fact that workers will very fast drop forms of organisation that they have only just won. And in place of the bureaucratic void of the general political organisation, they substitute the ongoing struggle at factory level – a struggle which takes ever-new forms which only the intellectual creativity of productive work can discover. Unless a directly working class political organisation can be generalised, the revolutionary process will not begin.”
The presence of those behaviors coupled with the absence of organization presents “a difficulty,” namely that of how “to grasp the material movements of the class, in the absence of levels of institutions corresponding to those movements – i.e. the lack of those channels through which class consciousness usually expresses itself.”
Tronti holds that capitalist development can be good for the working class, which is essentially what Negri and Hardt hold in their calls for the global multitude to push forward the creation of global Empire in order to push through to the other side (contra Paolo Virno’s opinion that if Empire is actually on the horizon then our task is to try to prevent it). For Negri, however, the transition to Empire and the preceding transition to real subsumption seems to be good for the working class objectively, pre-politically: it is a better terrain for the class struggle and the explanation for why this is so is not given on class terms. Tronti, by contracts, writes that capitalist development “can only become the material base for a political recomposition of the working class (and in this sense a positive strategic moment for the revolution) if it is accompanied by a revolutionary growth not only of the class, but also of class organisation. If this element is absent, the whole process works to the advantage of capital, as a tactical moment of a one-sided stabilisation of the system, seemingly integrating the working class within the system.”
I like this very much: “Whilst it is true that the working class objectively forces capital into clear, precise choices, it is also true that capital then makes these choices work against the working class. Capital, at this moment, is better organised than the working class: the choices that the working class imposes on capital run the risk of giving strength to capital. This gives the working class an immediate interest in opposing these choices.” As much as I like it, however, I can’t help but wonder if Tronti has in mind a contradiction between the working class’s immediate interest and its long-term interest, along the lines in which some Marxists might say that the Luddites were following their own immediate interests in opposing the introduction of machinery which undermined their lives but that in the long run the imposition of that technology – and the loss of the Luddite struggle – was an advance for the working class as a whole. (I think that perspective is fucked.)
This seems to qualify the sensibility I balked at above, where the working class is always and only in charge (a perspective from which class struggle becomes impossible to really see). On the other hand, I don’t think it qualifies it enough. If the working class is disorganized and capitalism is calling the shots, then I don’t understand how the working class “objectively forces” capitalists into things. Perhaps the “objectively” is important. The forcing is not due to political, organized working class activity, the working class as subject, but rather is due to the objective qualities of the working class: the working class as object of/for capitalism. To use terms from Jacques Ranciere, maybe the issue here is that the working class as object of policing does require capitalism to do certain things, but this not proletarian politics. Tronti writes later in the essay that “at the present moment – all the initiative is in capital’s hands.”
Given that the working class is a problem for capitalism but not an agent – the working class acts objectively rather than subjectively in Tronti’s framework as laid out in the essay (because the working class without organization is the working class not yet a subject) – I’m not sure what to make of his talk of “the strategic viewpoint of the working class.” As a strategic viewpoint _on_ the working class – again as object, though this time by revolutionaries who may be in some stratum or strata of the working class and who wish the class to be a subject – this makes sense. But as the class’s strategic viewpoint, I’m not so sure.
The political content of Tronti’s perspective is stated clearly in what he claims “will be the death sentence on [the proletariat’s] class enemy: the political ability to force capital into reformism, and then to blatantly make use of that reformism for the working class revolution.” Maybe. This might arguably be what happened with, say, the extension of the vote, and more definitely with Emancipation and with the civil rights movement. But… how do we tell reformism which lays the groundwork for revolution from crumbs tossed our way to quiet us? I’m not against positive reforms, far from it, and I think wishes for increasing misery on the hope that this will create more revolutionary ferment are deeply misguided and distasteful. Still, how do we tell working class revolutionary forcing of and use of reforms from political reformism? Tronti refers to these as “the two reformisms – that of capital and that of the labour movement.”
Tronti writes of a time in the future when “the working class has experienced not only struggle, but also revolutionary struggle, and within revolutionary struggle has also experienced alternative models of organisation.” This is the ‘struggle-as-training-and-transition’ sort of perspective that I like so much in the STO documents, and is also a very old Marxist idea of pre-revolutionary class struggle as a school for revolution. That time is not here yet, though, for “our present situation is different: it precedes and paves the way for that later stage” of greater revolutionary potentials. “From this follows both the workers strategic support for capital’s development in general and their tactical opposition to the particular forms of that development. So, in the working class today there is a contradiction between tactics and strategy. In other words, the political moment of tactics and the theoretical moment of strategy are in contradiction, in a complex and very much mediated relationship between revolutionary organisation and working class science.” This working class science, revolutionary theory “is not to be confused with the creation of a political programme; we must resist the temptation to carry this theoretical out-look immediately into the arena of the political struggle – a struggle which is articulated on the basis of a precise content, which, in some cases, may even contradict (quite correctly) our theoretical statements. As regards the practical resolution of practical problems of direct struggles, of direct organisation of direct intervention in a given class situation where workers are involved – all these should be gauged first of all by what the movement needs for its own development.” Resolving this situation is a task to work on in the present, for Tronti.
This separation (which I’m not entirely sure I understand) for Tronti lends itself to a condition in the working class has “an autonomous strategic perspective” without tactics or tactical consideration. (This reminds me of Gramsci on the relationship between unions and councils, where councils are the embodiment of the class war without any compromises or calculations of efficacy, I’ve been meaning to revisit that stuff.)
Again Tronti writes of capitalist development, as part of the road to communism: “Our starting point might therefore be in uncovering certain forms of working class struggles which set in motion a certain type of capitalist development which goes in the direction of the revolution.” At the same time “testing and re-testing, we could approach the problem of how to create a relationship, a new and ongoing organisation which could match these struggles.” This experimentation and organization should not be limited to one or the other sector or sectors of the class, but rather should be generalized – and, it seems, interpreted and guided – by a political organization, a key tool for which would be “a new form of working class newspaper” which “would not be designed to immediately report and reflect on all particular experiences of struggle; rather, its task would be to concentrate these experiences into a general political approach. In this sense, the newspaper would provide a monitoring of the strategic validity of particular instances of struggle.”