One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Posted: August 3, 2010 in 1970's, 1973

from the Red Notes book, Working Class Autonomy and the Crisis

Toni Negri


This article is Negri’s account of the broad development of the organisation of the revolutionary Left in Italy, from 1968 to 1973, and their crisis in the latter period. The article carries Negri’s rejection of the line of terrorism and the line of institutional (e.g. electoral) politics. It also touches on one of the themes of the Autonomy area in 1973 – the organisation of insurrection. He also explores the proposition that the political initiative of the mass worker – who had carried forward the preceding 5-year cycle of struggles – was about to be blocked by the operation of the crisis.

This article was printed as Appendix 3 to the article “The Working Class Party Against Work” in Crisi e Organizzazione Operaia (“The Crisis and Working Class Organisation”), Feltrinelli, Milan, September 1974, pp.183188. Its original title was: “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: the End of the Political Groups”.


We should periodise the phase of history that lies behind these Theses. Not in general terms, but in immediate terms as it deals with our lived experience of the past few years. We have already described the twin face of the crisis of theory within the revolutionary movement that was born in 1968 – i.e. terrorism, and the (implicitly reformist) “long. march through the institutions”. But this is a crisis not simply of theory, but also of practice. The political groups are experiencing a phase of heavy dissolution, and their only way out seems to consist in re-establishing links with the institutions, or, conversely, in carrying out individual terrorism. Micro-parties spring up, together with the formation of a political undergrowth which is mobile, unstable and dangerous. The watchword of the construction of the party and. the organisation of the insurrection is frittered away in minoritarian choices that are incapable of massified political reproduction. The problem is not confined to the Italian movement – it also involves those movements, in both Europe and America, which lived the explosion of 1968.

And yet all these comrades, this political cadre, have lived through a real phase of revolutionary political activity. Only the sectarian prejudices of the bureaucrats of the labour movement could deny that. The reality is that thousands of comrades know what it means to produce revolutionary propaganda and activity, and to develop spaces of working class power. That was the experience of 1968-69. But while the working class and some sectors of the proletariat have continued to move along this terrain, the political cadre ,of the political groups has split and fragmented. The crisis of practice has meshed with the crisis of theory: confusion$ have appeared, as to the way forward; the hitherto powerful reflection of working class unity within the political solidarity of the groups has weakened; opposite temptations have begun to develop.

It is too easy to explain this by the fact that the reformists’ counterattack and the undoubted capacity and vitality of the trade unions have restricted and blocked the political groups’ margins of struggle and expression, and have mystified the relationship between vanguards and masses. It is also too easy simply to say that repression has struck a particularly hard blow at a wide layer of militants in those areas where there has been resistance and progress in the political movement. Neither capital’s use of the crisis, nor the organisational shortcomings of means in relation to ends, can adequately explain the groups’ present phase of dissolution. We must go further, and identify the lack of a driving theory, the lack of a revolutionary analysis that could enable the vanguards to move forward together with the mass movement.

It seems to us that the mass movement was moving forward and that it had potentially resolved for itself– in struggle – the problems around which – both inside and outside the factory – the political movement of 1968 was breaking up. Today, therefore, a unified and attacking political revival requires us to understand, how-far forward the real movement has moved; it requires re-opening’ a mass inquiry in the factories and among the proletariat, as a whole; it must restructure itself according to the rhythm of the relationship that the class movement has defined, between vanguard and masses. But more of this anon.

First we must identify a number of critical historical stages in the recession of the movement, and above all in the breakdown of the mass/vanguard relation that had been established in that movement. We can identify three phases: the first phase runs from the early upheavals of Valdagno, Valle Giulia, Porto Marghera and Pirelli, up till the FIAT events of Spring 1969. The second phase runs from Agnelli’s counterattack of 3rd September 1969, and from July August 1970 (insurrection at Porto Marghera), to March 1972. The third phase is the one that opened at Mirafiori in the struggles of March 197 In this third phase (see my article The Workers’ Party of Mirafiori), I think we can see a further advance developing, a new perspective for organisation.

The First Phase

The first phase brings to maturity a long process of working class insubordination against capital’s plan, against capital’s socialism, and against capital’s command over development. The relationship between class movements and the position of the vanguards is total and spontaneous. The driving force of the movement is wholly founded in the autonomy of working class behaviour.

As regards the objectives, the breaking down of the relation between wage rises and productivity (both at the company level – the egalitarianism of the struggle against incentives etc. – and at the general level – the struggle for the social wage etc.) soon transforms itself into a struggle against work.

As regards the form of the struggle, the objectives were matched by the form, in such a way as to massively unify the project; the egalitarianism of the objectives was matched by the egalitarian rank and file nature of the organisation of the struggle; the refusal of bargaining and the refusal of work become synonymous; the refusal of work is, in short, a style of political work; hatred for the organisation of work is a supporting and driving force for the project.

As regards the articulation of an overall strategy for this project, however, this is the point where the spontaneity of the movement reaches its limitation Even the most far-reaching strategic anticipations last no more than a few weeks; the mass levels of struggle have such a power of invention as to immediately pull everything into line behind them. In this situation the problem of organisation (and insurrection) cannot be dealt with separately, from the mass level. The vanguard is completely interchangeable with the overall movement; the timing and the forms of circulation of the struggles become at one and the same time the articulation of the insurrectional goal; objectives, timings and forms of the struggle are no longer separable elements, During this first phase of struggles there was an enormous advance in revolutionary consciousness.

The Second Phase

A new process – which is contradictory and substantially negative – opens with Agnelli’s counterattack (the layoffs of September 1969), and the opening of the struggles for the national engineering contract. The priority in this phase was the necessity of integrating within the spontaneous movement an awareness of the tactical and strategic articulations of the insurrectionary process. Only such an integration would enable the movement to break out of the grip in which it was held – on the one hand by the first blows of Agnelli’s counterattack, and on the other by the encircling manoeuvres of the trade unions. These problems were put on the agenda by the movement, and it became clear that it would only be possible to hold and enlarge the spaces of power that had been conquered if there could be an organisational re-articulation of the political content that the mass movement, profiting from the scale and the surprise element of its offensive, had enthusiastically absorbed and made its own. But putting the problem on the agenda is not the same as solving it! In fact it was at this point that a deep and painful crisis began to develop.

The first experiences, it must be said, were not negative. From Turin and Porto Marghera, the scene shifted to Milan – i.e. to a metropolis where, rather than the direct connection to the factory, we see a prime example of an extremely articulated and complex command by capital. It was at this level of complexity that the problem was to be dealt with. The Milan housing struggles, represented, perhaps, the highest point of understanding of this problem. At the military level too, the articulation of the relation between vanguard and mass was being developed: the insurrection of Porto Marghera and other towns in the Veneto region on August 1st 1970 revealed an articulation between attacking groups and mass movements, at an offensive level, over a wide territorial area: these offered possible models of urban guerrilla, and also went further than the (nonetheless formidable) example of the mass revolt in Turin on July 3rd 1969.

The same is true for the generalisation of the Milan housing struggles. But the failure came in the attempt subsequently, to match organisational forms to the urgency of these new tasks. The whole of 1971 saw the sectarian setting-up of groups, and the bureaucratic usurpation of leadership, against the organised instances of working class autonomy. The real task – of rearticulating from within itself the compactness of the newly unified strength of the working class – was transformed into an external undertaking of guidance and abstract leadership. A triumph for Third Internationalism of the most vulgar kind. Meanwhile, in the same span of time that the working class struggle was advancing, extending and consolidating its destruction of the factory hierarchy, launching the slogan of the guaranteed wage, and beginning the first struggles on that front, the groups were mustering their attacking capacity (which was now becoming impotent and abstract because it had no bite at the mass level) into what was claimed to be an attack “directed against the State”. The “journey to the South” that the groups undertook in this phase was far from being a new articulation of the organisational debate between the working class struggles in the metropolis and the working class struggles in underdeveloped areas (i.e. a project for a movement balanced between vanguard action and mass behaviours). Rather, on the one hand it rehashed the spontaneist ideology of 1968, and on the other – even more mistakenly – loaded it with a misleading stress on sub-proletarian violence against the State (in reality this was a simple projection of the subjectivism and centralisation of the groups). The organisational process that sought a a continuity of organisational stages articulated within the discontinuity of the mass movement, was brutally shattered. The groups, in the period from the end of 1971 up till March 1972, went onto the attack – alone! When, on March 11th 1972, the groups had the momentary impression of a military victory, at both national and metropolitan level, they had in fact suffered a bitter blow and had to pay the price of their separate existence. They were to be heavily defeated; the repression would find them isolated, and was able to savage them. In addition, their detachment from the class was now total: the groups were completely absent from the contract negotiations at the end of 1972.

It was at this point that the crisis of organisation found its counterpart in the crisis of theory. The widening separation from the mass level – which had already taken place – was theorised and mystified within an ideology of “self-criticism”, of “new organisation”, of the “continuity of a generation of political cadres” etc. etc.. It was here that ideology took two separate pat the path of neo-reformism, which said it was necessary to re-open a relationship with the masses, but could only conceive it, in terms of a renewed collaboration with the trade unions; and the path of terrorism, which carried out exemplary actions of attack, intending them as moments for bringing together the mass movement. It was here that the two steps backwards were taken. The capitalist use of the crisis – which had become more intense in the meantime – was not analysed. The crisis was seen in “catastrophist” terms both by the reformists (who, on this basis, built their hopes of institutional unity and a frontist coordination with the mass movement), and, obviously, by the terrorists. As for the problem of organisation, they felt compelled to replace the continuity of the working class project with the coherence of a top-down political line and a more or less bureaucratic initiative. All this led to an overemphasis of the functions of the political group, of the ideological cohesion and homogeneity of the leadership within a vertical hierarchy. And the insurrection, inasmuch as it was still talked about at all, returned to being an “art”, a sudden moment that “someone” decides on! These “steps backwards” are an incredibly heavy burden!

But the working class and the proletariat were moving forward. Not only in the consolidation of objectives, in the holding of spaces of power, and in the determination of the definitive irreversibility of working class and proletarian power, but also at the level of organisation. The awareness that insurrection is not an “art.” but a “science”, the capacity to articulate minutely the entire progress of subversion into mass movements and vanguard moments – this understanding is wholly within the working class. It is an understanding that capital, at this level of development, does not leave “soft underbellies” to strike at, or weak links to shatter, or detonators with which to set off explosions, but that only a continuous and organised, conscious, political relationship can today identify what needs to be overthrown by the massed forces of the class.

The Third Phase

The third phase of the working class organisational process starts at FIAT Mirafiori, in March 1973. The leadership lies wholly within class autonomy; the articulation of the attack is also its unifying factor; the outlines of a new, adequate model of organisation begin to be seen. At that given level of class struggle, working class autonomy begins to write its “What Is To Be Done”. Its subtitle is Insurrection as a Science. If we
try to move on this terrain, remaking the link of theory to the mass movement, perhaps this time we will not have to wait such a long period, as happened (Note 2) in the 1960s, between the dress rehearsal of Piazza Statuto and the insurrection of July 3rd 1969.

However, none of this is enough if the transition to the struggle against the State is not mediated by a theory (critical understanding, from the working, class viewpoint) of crisis., The capitalist attempt to open up points of fracture within the given composition of the class – this is the aim of crisisstrategy, from the capitalist viewpoint – and the articulation of the means of mass repression and at the same time of precise timed attacks (pre-emptive provocation etc.) used to this end, should be taken up by the working class conception of organisation, and turned into varied and articulated functions of the revolutionary project. Here it should be understood that we are not preaching some “recherche du temps perdu”: the class levels that we take as our reference point today are those defined by the powerful emergence of the mass worker, of the massified levelling and broadening of the figure of the mass worker, but all the time with an awareness that they have been, and will be, ploughed under by the crisis. That which capital is re-articulating with the crisis, it rearticulates objectively: today’s task is to transform into a subjective function that materiality of working class articulation which capital wants to realise through the crisis. The overall awareness that the wage is power, passes through the organisational articulation of the instances of attack against capital’s ability to block the workers’ wage demands – and their demands for power.

Let’s take an example: Let us suppose that in some big factories, the workers’ demand for the guaranteed wage were to pass. The apparatus of capitalist power will use this working class victory in order to separate and distinguish working class strata one from the other; separate the factory from the community, to guarantee truces on various fronts etc.. The immediate task of the mass vanguards, on the other hand, will be to make this victory immediately generalisable. But is this mass pressure sufficient? No, it is not sufficient. The revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist project of containment of the struggles over the guaranteed wage will be possible only if, at the same time, the struggle over appropriation is developed – in other words, the struggle to guarantee and maintain living standards at the level of what has been won, and this applies not only for the vanguards, but in an exemplary and driving form on every terrain of the proletarian struggle. The only way to maintain, enlarge and consolidate spaces of power is to take the most advanced levels as our reference point, talking increasingly in terms of power. This is the only gradualism that we accept.

And it is once again a function which is rooted immediately within the composition of the class. Between 1968 and today, the vanguards have modified themselves, and have deepened the intensity of their offensive intentions in relation to the crisis and the capitalists’ response. It is only the groups who have ideologised 1968 and the political cadres that emerged from ’68, and have “,congealed” that so-called “continuity of a generation”. Not so the class! Here, in the struggle, autonomy has represented a terrain of constant innovation of political initiative, and above all it has opened up the horizon of armed struggle. The young worker – who entered the factory after 1968 – has brought to organisation a new awareness of the relationship between the wage struggle and the struggle for power, between factory struggle and community struggle, between articulated struggle and overall struggle. This new young worker – a truly multinational worker – drags no polemical fetish behind him. He did not need to aspire to a victory – his victory had been before he arrived in the factory, where he then, presented himself as a socialised product of the struggle. In his structure as a proletarian there was, materially, neither resignation nor complex calculations of bureaucratic possibilities – but the freshness of a series of needs that had been satisfied, and a new hatred for exploitation. Today the class struggle and the new organisation are to be measured against this formidable new reality. Here the groups have nothing to add.

May 1st 1973,


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