The Lenin Question: Organization and Mass Struggle

Detail from Diego Rivera, “Man at the Crossroads” (1934).

We came from a revolutionary and communist tradition, renewed in the antifascist resistance, and transmitted through the Italian Communist Party (PCI). The cult of Lenin was at the center of this tradition. When we began to criticize or no doubt reject the politics of the PCI, it did not mean, in the ’60s and ’70s, forgetting Lenin. On the contrary, if in those years Marxism remained the axis for every critical position taken on Stalinism, Leninism remained central in the figure of an “authentic” Marxism within working-class organization. And this was also true in the debate of groups linked to the experiences of direct factory interventions – to those working-class groups that hegemonized the movement in the following decade. 

Lenin was thus at the center of the debate. For young workerists, he was the demonstration of the possibility of revolution and the subject of its victory. And if his teaching and revolutionary experience came to be interpreted in the most diverse ways, by various political groups which formed in that period, all of this happened in opposition to the reading of Lenin given by the PCI. In the PCI Lenin represented the dictatorship of the proletariat, the Party that manages it, centralism as the organizational line of the Party and then – in the opinion of these groups – the cynicism of the politics of alliance, the instrumentality of the worker-peasant relationship (in Italy, “North” and “South”), and opportunism in the relationship between strategy and tactics. This judgment was perhaps exaggerated, although it revealed the conformist corruption and the subjection of Lenin to the Stalinist picture of the administration of power. Such was the role of the European communist parties in maintaining the status quo during the Cold War.

There are various currents organized around this critique of the PCI, close to and after ’68, which differentiate themselves in relation to their interpretation of Lenin’s thought. There are the Maoists: more or less those who refer to the Cultural Revolution developed in China by the “Red Guards” at Mao’s request, making up a front that combined anarchic inclinations and rigid organizational rules. Among the Maoists, there are more morbid currents which concentrate their discourse essentially on organization – an organization that soon, in a plethora of means and subjects, slides from an organizational-political stance towards forms of communitarianism and/or generously or naively associated life. For the most radical, instead, the Maoist reading of the revolutionary process extends to a discussion of the relationship between organization and civil war, or better, of organization for civil war. This Leninist pretext is presented in different forms: most fundamental are the Guevarist forms (war of movement organized around “guerrilla fires”) or a project of civil war, rigidly organized by party initiative (the Red Brigades move in this direction, although they initially had swung towards movementist positions).

The reading of Lenin was also carried out, in an original way, and therefore in a way strictly linked to an organized project, by groups who proposed a “long march through the institutions.” In this goal there was nothing opportunistic, just as there was nothing opportunistic in the project of Rudi Dutschke and the German social democratic youth when this slogan was coined. In Italy however, in the groups that proposed this line, it was often interpreted as a radicalization of what they were able to recuperate, or better, excavate, from the presumed Gramscianism of the communist tradition. It was, in the majority of cases, a free and honest reprisal of Gramscian “passive revolution.” Yet this ended when it met with the proposals advanced by the PCI, since the constituent period prior to the First Republic, which, as we know, carried out on the one hand a strong “democratic centralism” on the question of organization (with the firm subordination of unions to the Party line), and on the other hand a project of parliamentary-democratic transition to socialism. In the new groups that formed around a project of radicalizing PCI policies, Lenin is essentially recuperated as a theorist of revolutionary rupture, and therefore of a process of transition to socialism that throws the opposition of worker democracy to capitalist and bourgeois dictatorship. At root, for these forces (il Manifesto, Avanguardia Operaia, etc.) the reading of Lenin remained attached to the PCIist tradition, or better, to the reading Togliatti had made of Gramsci, oriented in a national-populist sense and purged of any Bolshevist element. Certainly, in the position of these groups, the communitarian, minoritarian, and sectarian illusions, which were largely ideological constructions of Maoism, were removed. And yet, it seems to me that the radicality of the Leninist project was overshadowed.

There were also the positions (which had already resulted in a specific political weight at the beginning of the ’70s) of those workerists (Tronti, Cacciari, Accornero, etc.) that in the mid-1960s re-entered the official organizations of the workers’ movement, and particularly the PCI. Here the reading of Lenin essentially (unlike – and we will return to this point – that which they had previously theorized) leads not to the insurrectionist and Bolshevist Lenin but to the Lenin of the New Economic Policy (NEP) and the transitionary compromise with business forces, and consequently the Lenin of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the leader of the Party-State. The discourse on Lenin already begins to slide here (politically and philosophically) towards the re-evaluation of the “autonomy of the political” – in the sense, that is, of an assimilation of Lenin’s lessons to those of Carl Schmitt. On this line the political tradition of modernity, from Hobbes to Hegel, is recovered, considering “Lenin on the State” not as a theorist of its extinction, but as the apologist of its transcendence and its transformative power. The post-workerist Tronti has then developed this interpretive schema for forty years and still gives this reading of Lenin.

To object that Lenin was never the apologist of the “autonomy of the political,” but rather, much differently, of “the autonomy of the working class vanguard,” is at the root of the workerist polemic, which was still committed [impegnati] to the continuity of struggles from the 1960s, unlike the supporters of the “autonomy of the political.” That was their claim. In Lenin, the working class vanguard had the capacity to pose the problem of power because, in the epoch of the organization of labor under the form of “increasing cooperation,” of the “formal subsumption” of society by capital, which was typical of early industrialization in Russia, he expressed and universalized the interests of the working class with the aim of revolutionizing and re-organizing the entire society under his command and values. It was noted, against the conception of the “autonomy of the political,” that the practice of the Party as vanguard did not conceal, in the Leninist situation, its working-class nature; and that indeed, without the vanguard of the working class, the proletariat – at the level of industrial development in Russia – would never have been able to make itself into an organization for revolution. Lenin (despite the fascination he received from thinkers and actors of fascism) thus has nothing to do with Carl Schmitt. Lenin has to do with Machiavelli, with the capacity of interpreting (and acting on) the relation between social and class composition and political organization in the struggle to conquer power. This is the Lenin of the workerists, the Lenin of Lotta Continua, Potere Operaio, and Autonomia Operaia, in the 1970s. The Lenin question comes to be proposed again within the perspective of insurrection. The arc of readings that maintain this position extends between Gyorgy Lukacs and Louis Althusser. It is through these authors that a Marxist reading of Lenin’s Marxism is developed. 

The reading of Lenin that was carried out during those years in workerist environments in Italy was performed entirely in this sense. The genesis of Lenin’s thought is the construction of a vanguard subject, immersed in the definition of the productive dimension of the working class. The theory of organization must pass through a method, through a “Marxist sociology,” which translates the analysis of material social relations, of determinate “social formation,” into a model of political organization. Already in 1894, in “What the ‘Friends of the People’ Are,” Lenin insists that “only by reducing the social relations to relations of production and the latter to productive forces” – only operating in this way can the possibility of a political and organizational foundation be grasped. 1 And in 1899, in his study on The Development of Capitalism in Russia, Lenin insists on the fact that it is only by posing at the highest level of labor, namely at the highest point of industrial development that the establishment of a revolutionary force in the class struggle can be grasped. This way of proceeding overturns, in a Marxist manner, the current sense of determinations as “abstract” and “concrete”: what seemed most abstract (capitalist development, the factory in a underdeveloped social context such as Russia in the 1890s) becomes in its tendency, in its revolutionary comprehension, the most concrete thing, the point at which political organization must be adapted [va commisurata]. There’s nothing more Marxist than this Leninist determination of the organizing process. What is To Be Done? is nothing other than the transformation of those theoretical discoveries into a proposal for subjectivation. 

Thus, we can understand how workerism poses the theme of Lenin and its coherent relation with the reading of Marx. What are the stakes? To bring about the rebirth of revolutionary struggle in the capitalist West. Now, Lenin allows the political issue of the rupture of capitalist order to be steeped in the social process and the perspective of organization. From a first point of view, for the workerists, the argument begins – beyond the ferocious polemic against the opportunism of the PCI – from the reprisal of Gramsci’s proposal of “Marx against Capital,” which means a polemic against the positivist objectivism, historicism, and political opportunism of the Second International. Lenin is the sign of the possibility of rupture of the sovereign continuity of power and the continuity of profit, organized by capitalist accumulation; he is the sign of a possible subjective political determination. The reading of Lenin is, from this point of view, concentrated on the writings that lead to State and Revolution. But there is something more in the workerists, and it is the legacy of the reading that Tronti (before this reading was betrayed in a Schmittian perspective) gave to Lenin. In “Lenin in England,” he writes: “capitalist society has its laws of development: economists have invented them, governments have imposed them, and workers have suffered them. Capital has its history, and its historians will write it – but who will write the history of the working class?” And this Brechtian incipit follows: “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 means that the concept of capital is the concept of class struggle, that the structure of capital is split and formed in and by class struggle. And at this point, Lenin is rediscovered:

With a masterly stroke, the Leninist strategy brought Marx to St. Petersburg: only the working-class viewpoint could have carried out such a bold revolutionary step. Now let us try to retrace the path, with the same scientific spirit of adventure and political discovery. What we call “Lenin in England” is a project to research a new Marxist practice of the working class party: it is the theme of struggle and of organization at the highest level of political development of the working class. 2

“Retracing the path” had to allow for comparing Lenin to the modification of the capitalist structure and the working class composition of the mode of production, as it stood after the October Revolution. That is, it meant, between 1968 and the early 1970s, focusing, in a Leninist way, on the line that leads from the critical theory of capital to the theory and practice of the political organization of the proletariat. It is here that a large debate opens up. Leninist thought is indeed confronted with the current structure of capitalism and with the present figure of the working class, which to put it briefly is the movement of the mass worker. There was a radical change of the structure of capitalism that carried to conclusion – to put it in Marxist terms – the formation of “big industry,” or the passage from the “formal to the real subsumption of labor by capital.” In this framework, according to the workerists, the structure of the working class was profoundly altered, and the mass worker comprehended, assembled, tightened around itself, and rendered politically active the enormous productive force that this development had created and which had been internalized within the working class itself. What a difference from the “skilled” working class, specializing in manufacturing, only “formally” subsumed under capital – politically organized in the soviets and a minority in society – which Lenin had to work with! By contrast, in the ‘70s, the working class moved with enormous “spontaneity,” with the ability to continuously invent and multiply forms of attack against the capitalist regime of production – and, above all, the political dimension emerged directly from economic struggle, proving itself a powerful lever of political struggle within the struggle over wages and the working day. There was also a big difference from the way in which Lenin had extracted the organizational model from the critique of the capitalist structure of production. Thus the Party must transform the economic struggle of the proletariat into a mature class consciousness. In the ‘70s things went differently – economic and political struggle were together, the one inside the other. Not that Lenin looked down on or considered the economic struggle “minor.” It is valid in every moment it is conducted: already in 1898, in the pamphlet “The Tasks of the Russian Social-Democrats,” Lenin exclaims:

Just as there is no issue affecting the life of the workers in the economic field that must be left unused for economic agitation, so there is no issue in the political field that does not serve as a subject for political agitation. These two kinds of agitation are inseparably connected in the activities of the Social Democrats as the two sides of the same medal. Both economic and political agitation are equally necessary for guiding the class struggle of the Russian workers, because every class struggle is a political struggle. 3

Yet Lenin bases his project on a model of the factory in which organized labor represents a vanguard within the current [vigente] mode of production and the working class is recognized in a political condition that is not only independent but separate. Its political independence, which is provided by a developed class consciousness, must then overcome the distance, the separation from society (and moreover of the proletariat), in order to impose workers’ command. This proposal was further clarified by the continuous, ferocious polemic against every form of populism that privileged customary [consuetudinarie] forms of the organization of labor and life with respect to the forms of factory organization and life.

If we keep the factory at the center of both phenomenologies, we may still be permitted to exclaim: what a great difference between the early 20th century and the ‘60s and ‘70s, as far as the working class in struggle was concerned! In the former case the political vanguard dragged the mass movement, the “political tribune,” as Lenin said, leading labor-power in the struggle. In the second case, the mass movement expressed itself in an autonomous, severe [dura], and compact way, and from its organized spontaneity inevitable demands on capital emerged, themes focused on the destruction of the capitalist organization of labor, of its command and its hierarchy, its rule over temporality. It was, then, around here that it was time to build an organization. The union, after having been awakened by the colossal struggles of the “hot autumn” in ‘69, immediately attempted to reintroduce, at the beginning of the 1970s, organizational forms (“factory councils”) suited to mediating and renewing the relation between the factory and general politics, understanding by “general politics” the parliamentary politics of the Party. On the one hand, these factory councils were an old instrument, which had failed in the struggles after World War II because they were quickly reduced to a corporate version. On the other hand, they came to interrupt the line that incited, through economic struggle, the political massification capable of breaking the lines of the proletariat’s social subjection. This interruption was actually an attempt to mediate class antagonism and reconcile the mass worker to productive continuity: it represented the negation of the Leninist principle of the insurrectional discontinuity of the revolutionary workers’ movement and every strategy of the event, every tactic of rupture. 

The stakes of reconstructing a revolutionary workers’ movement are articulated in times of confrontation. The Italian ‘68 was characterized by the confluence of student movements and social movements into the struggles of industrial workers who, with “spontaneous” struggles (sustained, that is, by strong internal organization in the factory, independent from unions), tried to free themselves from the yoke of capitalist economic regulation. The struggles led to the re-evaluation of wages, the decline of the working day, and they proposed, in a general way, the issue of the harmfulness of labor, contesting the hierarchy and division of labor in the factory. To the pressure of the mass struggles were added various modes of attack, generally legitimized by the movement: strong absenteeism, phenomena of sabotage, constant insubordination to factory discipline… In more technical companies, alternative workers’ experiments into the organization of labor were carried out: in the chemical factories a survey on the ecological conditions of production was conducted, and the commodities produced were subjected to scientific testing of their harmfulness. Student movements, which contested the school and the capitalist command of power, joined the factory movements. As well as a wide range of social movements, from those searching for ways of controlling the governance of institutions (schools, hospitals, etc.) to, on the other hand, actions of “mass illegality” against rents, rates of service, to widespread phenomena of the direct appropriation of goods and leisure. For all of the “long Italian ‘68” (which in fact lasted a decade), ordering and directing these movements, building and linking instances of social counter-power, were thus the tasks that the organizations proposed. It was in this framework that the centrality of the theme of “organization,” and therefore the “Lenin question” could be understood. In Italy, in those years, organization could not be thought outside of this reference – there was no alternative, neither a council nor a communitarian one, that could be posed credibly – it was only a matter of deepening and adapting the Leninist, Machiavellian theme. This thereby led to thinking about the organization no longer as factory but as a “social undertaking.” And insurrection no longer as only an “art” but as the acting, massified and institutionalized, of a movement that, in itself, was configured as “dual power” (but this would open an argument that is too long to take up here). 

There was another framework of research which also directly came from Lenin’s lessons. It was that which led from the experience of struggles and their organization to the definition of a revolutionary program. And here as well it was based on the Leninist outline of the insurrection of mass workers led by a vanguard which must consolidate itself in institutions of social “counter-power” and in this way lead to an insurrectional process. How can the vanguard of the mass worker organize itself in this framework? What are the differences from the classic organization of the proletariat in revolutionary Russia? Once things are looked at from the viewpoint of the mass worker, the line of conduct was simplified because, in the workerist apparatus for arranging struggles, the economic thematic was conceded as internal to the political dynamic. This relative simplification (and the consequent negation of “mediation” as a determinant element of organization) did not, however, allow for a rediscovery of effective links between the tactics and strategy of struggles. The mass moves, its direction is given, strategic hegemony is granted, but the tactics, passages, use of occasions and events, all of this is proposed as a problem to discuss. Besides the crude reduction of the theme of the vanguard, and its articulation within the mass movement, to the simple armed vanguard (a theme which was not irrelevant in the ‘70s), the call to the Leninist thematic on the part of the workerists was searching for other ways to escape – which eventually integrated the armed variant but did not become subordinate to it. This development was gradually identified in the maturation of the struggles’ assembly instruments for decision-making, their objectives, and their social propaganda. It is important to pay attention to and not underestimate this step. Assemblies and their decision-making processes, then proposed and experimented with, indeed anticipated, and prefigured, the organizational proposals and experiences made possible by communication technologies. Participation is considered the constitutive element of worker democracy in the course of the insurrectional process. The vanguard was in communication and presto, with an improvised and inventive impulse, there were Free Radios, with their widespread diffusion and the efficacy of their labor, to take up this assembly incentive again.

Here a new problem opens up. The assemblyist theme will in fact be completely insufficient to resolve the crisis that arises after 1973. To recall: this is the first petroleum crisis and it signaled, after the 1971 decision by the U.S. government to sever the dollar from gold, the first major neoliberal initiative. It is the moment of the Trilateral Commission and its decision – at the global level – to put an end to the social and political upheavals [sommovimenti] which followed ‘68. Now, in facing the neoliberal offensive, the remaining Leninist residues in workerist discourse fall to pieces. If Lenin, as we had read him between the ‘60s and early ‘70s, was used to resolve the relation between the multiplicity of movements and the unity of goal [obiettivo] that every proletarian revolutionary process must know how to handle; and if the theme of unity-multiplicity was resolved through inquiry (and by the discovery of the new social composition of labor, the mass worker, returning the point of unity to within the class), after 1973 the capitalist counter-attack assailed [investe] the working class as such. Inquiry, in this phase, no longer revealed the centrality of the factory, but its dissolution, the social diffusion of production, the fragmentation of the social division of labor and the emergence of new leading [trainanti] sectors. Leninist discourse lost its unifying significance because it now lost the reference to a unity, actually implanted in class struggle. On the contrary, this capitalist operation established, in opposition to the revolutionary drive, a great incentive to the development of reformist and opportunist forces. What more can be recovered from Leninism at this point?

There are two lines that follow during the ‘70s in the face of this problem, both of which were built by “workers’ inquiry,” and connected to the changes in the mode of production. First, if it is increasingly difficult to reconstitute the technical composition of the mass-worker (attacked and partially destroyed by the neoliberal backlash) into a new, homogenous and unitary, political figure, there are spaces, widespread wastelands [friches] that the new productive and political system still cannot control, which become, in this moment, the territories on which autonomia creates, in a diffuse form, organized movements, capable of breaking the capitalist machine of social reproduction. In the metropolises and in the surrounding areas [zone extraurbane], where industry spreads into small territorial units, a new worker organization thus extends as well. It is the moment of the social worker [operaio sociale]. 4

The capitalist destruction of “big industry,” through productive outsourcing and the construction of delocalized districts, is followed by autonomous organizations which create places of encounter and mobilization in the territories. Interestingly, this process of organization intercepts the flexibilization of labor-power onto territories and develops adequate forms of struggle: communication of factory struggles in the factory, organization of mobility through territories with demonstrations, transportation blockades, etc. They are struggles that recall those of the IWW and that repeat in phases of transformation the technical composition of the working class. In this case it was precisely in going beyond the “large factory” and the mass worker who lived there.

Is there still Leninism at this point? Certainly, the classic characteristics of Leninism as a modern, Machiavellian form of political organization have collapsed [sono venuto meno]. But there is another Leninist dimension, profoundly Marxist, which remains and is actually exalted: it is the exigency, the urgency of implanting the organized project, the form of struggle in its productive reality and recognizing it in its social quality. The Leninist viewpoint, if we do not want to close it within the unraveling of the Soviet experience or as a dogmatic fetish, has always fundamentally been able to strictly link the productivity of labor and political organization. It is only living labor at the highest level of productivity that can determine revolutionary force: this is the central aspect of Leninism in this phase, after ’73, taken up by the autonomist movements in the middle of the disintegration of political forces. The movements intuit the becoming-social [farsi sociale] of productivity, in a progressively hegemonic way, as the power of the new manner of producing [modo di produrre]. How to combine this intuition and the definition of the social-worker with the always current [attuale] slogan of “the refusal to work”? Many of us remember the Marxian motto of the Grundrisse: “the capacity for enjoyment is a condition for it, and hence the basic means for it, and this capacity is created by the development of an individual disposition, productive power,” 5 and the projecting of the becoming-social of labor and the highest productivity that it expresses in this way – recognizing in this passage, in that real, an increase of productive power, in a large laboring cooperation and outside of the misery of the factory. This was continually a refusal of wage-labor. Beyond the misery of the factory and beyond every illusion that communism can be reached through the “cult of the people,” labor organized according to tradition in rural areas – and this productive demand meant, at that time, demystifying and attacking every “national-popular” illusion that was nourished by the PCI. The nexus between the productivity of labor and the destruction of wage-labor does not know an alternative – it exalts labor only by measuring its negation of the wage form, and exalts productivity when it frees man from the misery of command.

We have said that there were two lines which, in the second half of the 1970s, responded to the weakening of the struggle of the mass worker. The second studied the genesis of cognitive labor as an axis for worker recomposition. However, the becoming-social of living labor – as we have seen so far – considerably precedes its cognitive becoming. For a certain time the two processes do not overlap. This explains why the second path in that period (which is more classically Leninist than the first) found difficulties in being interpreted directly in the struggles. It looked for the recomposition of living labor in the social factory of the General Intellect. This remains a strong anticipation which only in the 1990s began to find political expression. But already in the second half of the ‘70s it is present to the militants. The reading of the “Fragment on Machines” in the Grundrisse, which had already been translated in Quaderni Rossi a decade before, and which had strongly kindled [sollecitato] the imagination of communists, then became a matter of inquiry. Through the inquiry it was perceived that precisely to the extent that production spreads over territories, it must be complemented [integrato] by new knowledges and consequently technological transformations. The social factory does not repeat the territorialized “factory,” communication becomes fundamental to the productive process, techniques of exploitation are transformed, and resistance is calibrated on these new dimensions. In this research it was perceived both that in this passage, the production of commodities and reproduction of social life came to overlap, and that knowledge would become the fundamental labor-power – and, therefore, that the social worker represented only the beginning of a new productive figure of living labor.

Thus there are two paths to follow in the second half of the 1970s, that of diffuse autonomy and that of the recomposition of a unitary project around the hegemony of the class of the General Intellect – and both paths have a Leninist stamp. Leninism not only persists but is multiplied in this predicament. We walk on both of these paths, measuring the extreme difficulty of the moment in which the dissolution of that old PCIist project is given, its social conditions and the strong advancement of the neoliberal counter-revolution. Leninism is indeed not simply the idea of a relation between an organized force and its roots in a tendentiously affirmative and winning social power – the Leninist organized project develops with a strong reference to two themes, the extinction of the State and the assertion [affermazione] of the Commune. We can perhaps struggle as Leninists and revolutionaries (as was recognized in the ‘90s) in the State and project a revolutionary path that uses state institutions in particular phases of the process of the liberation of the working class, but this process of using the State is limited (and it insists on this) to a bourgeois-democratic stage of revolutionary development. The aim [fine] of communists, and their permanent revolution, is that of extinguishing the State and of bringing the Commune to legitimize exclusively its own mode of social order. It is on this terrain that the development of the struggles of autonomy are confirmed in the second half of the ‘70s, in all of their dimensions, from the most fragile in the theoretical labor on the theme of the General Intellect, to the more lasting links to widespread social organization of an autonomy that seeks to consolidate itself in the resistance to new forms of (neoliberal) production – usefully, in each of these forms of resistance there is always an implicit Leninism. It was clear that with the repression of movements at the end of the ‘70s, every product of the “use of the State” had become insurmountable [impercorribile].

Now to conclude. There are three points on which we have insisted concerning the Italian reception of Lenin in the struggles of the 1970s. The first thing to appreciate is that he develops a coherent analysis of the critique of the political economy of capital to the planning of the political organization of the proletariat, discovering an inclusive relation of Party organization within factory analysis – consequently, Lenin therefore makes the Party emerge from the technical composition of the proletariat and gives it the figure of the overthrown [rovesciata] factory. The second point consists in posing, in the same way, the theme of the interruption of capitalist development through the affirmation of the independence of the working class. It is a line capable of inverting the consecutive relationship between the technical composition of the proletariat and the political composition of the working class, after having built continuity. The third point on which we have insisted is the directly programmatic character that the Party assumes in Lenin: it is done for the communist revolution and for nothing but the communist revolution. To these three points, it seemed that we were able to give an interpretation that verified the relevance of a double transformation of the conditions in which Leninism had succeeded. Namely that – consistent with the stabilization of the mass worker – it was fully accomplished in the 1960s; and that it was glimpsed in the birth of the social worker and the development of the General Intellect which, in the 1970s, began to experiment in the chaotic crucible of the development of class struggle under the aggressive capitalist restructuring of the mode of production.

We have already emphasized the strict relationship between technical and political composition in Lenin’s thought. This nexus is then confirmed when considered in the transformation of the political figures of worker organization. Lenin’s Party is in the “formal subsumption” of labor under capital and in this condition the organizations of the masses and the vanguard are defined as different functions of revolutionary action – the one the soviets, the other the Party. In the 1960s we instead find ourselves fully in “real subsumption”: the vanguard is now squatting [accovacciata] in the heart of living labor, with worker massification having happened. Technical composition and political composition are confused, so to speak, tending to configure themselves politically and express themselves in assembly forms, they clash with the capitalist capacity of dissolving the conditions of existence (through globalization… but this is another argument). It is in the midst of this attack, in the second half of the ‘70s, that the problem of organization is rethought, identifying first a line of resistance that arises and embodies the pauses and/or delays of the capitalist initiative; and a second model that, in a Leninist way, seeks to identify a new emergence and a new vanguard figure. The construction of the revolutionary endeavor of the General Intellect, of “mass intellectuality,” precarious and social intelligence alienated in financial abstraction, this is the outlet on which a new biopolitics of exploitation and a new imagination of the “revolutionary endeavor” will intersect, in those years of heavier repression – the theoretical hope of a reprisal of the movement on new bases. 

Having said this, we certainly cannot forget how much, in the 1970s, the clash around the definition of class composition was fierce – between the forces of autonomy and the PCI comrades. The appearance of the social worker on the scene was interpreted by the latter as the rise of a “second society,” unsuitable for recomposing with the working class, and destined rather to the ghetto, and therefore to be socially excluded and politically combatted – and if it became too restless, to be crushed through repressive means. Even in this polemic different interpretations of Lenin resounded: the first anchored to the primacy of the political – which meant the Party, in the moment that, through the historical compromise, it was making itself the State; the second that took up the energetic Leninist invitation not to leave any social strata outside of the revolutionary movement – above all if, as was the case for the social worker, it had the vocation of becoming the hegemonic representation of living labor. But this clash between the forces of the new proletariat and the PCI around Leninism also had another aspect. It was when the reformist forces, organized in the communist Parties, reproached the movements for their incapacity to constitute themselves into a political force. Assemblies, assemblyism, its capacity to express radical lines of struggle and mass recomposition and the vanguard, all of this was undeservedly despised. We observe that the incompleteness of these organizational experiences cannot give space to the criticism on the part of those who, of the conception of the Party, have made the means for the refusal of any principle of mass participation, of cooperative elaboration of a political project – renouncing the portrayal of communist hope. We are still within this consumptive rage [rovello]. The 1970s opened up a problem, the reorganization of the proletariat, recognizing the new roots, entrusting “continuous inquiry” with the directions for advancing the construction of the revolutionary project. On that line substantial experiences were made (in particular in the alter-globalization struggles of 1999-2001 and the indignados struggles from 2011 to today) of new forms of organization. If we want to call the “Lenin question” the problem of organization opened in the 1970s and today newly again before us, we can certainly do so, provided that it is understood that the watchword of Lenin does not mean nostalgia or organizational fetishism, but is rather a new solution for the problems that he had posed and victoriously resolved.

– Translated by Dave Mesing

This text originally appeared in Actuel Marx 62 (2017) and Euronomade.

This article is part of a dossier entitled “Comrades, Rally Around Your Soviets!”: The Centenary of the October Revolution.


1 V.I. Lenin, “What the Friends of the People Are and How They Fight the Social-Democrats,” in Lenin: Collected Works, vol. 1 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1960), 140.
2 Mario Tronti, “Lenin in England,” 1964.
3 Lenin, “The Tasks of the Russian Social-Democrats,” in Lenin: Collected Works, vol. 2 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1960), 332.
4 Translator’s Note: Negri developed the concept operaio sociale in order to thematize what he understood as a shift in class struggle within post-industrial societies, attempting to understand the working class as part of an ongoing process of composition and recomposition, rather than a static monolith. The figure of operaio sociale is meant to thematize how labor is increasingly diffuse and extends beyond the factory, encompassing reproductive, informal, and other work. It should not be confused with the allusions that “social worker” has in English. A more thorough discussion can be found in Negri’s essay “Archaeology and Project: The Mass Worker and the Social Worker.”
5 Karl Marx, Grundrisse, in Marx-Engels Collected Works, trans. Victor Schnittke, vol. 29 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2010), 97.

Author of the article

is a Marxist political philosopher, widely known for his book Empire, co-authored with Michael Hardt, and for his work on Spinoza. In 1969 he was among the founders of Potere Operaio, which he left in 1973 to become one of the main leaders of Autonomia Operaia. After moving to Paris, he taught at the University of Paris VIII (Vincennes-Saint Denis) and the Collège International de philosophie, alongside philosophers such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze. His most well-known politico-philosophical writings, often co-authored with Michael Hardt, come from his time in France: The Labor of Dionysus, Empire, Multitude, and Commonwealth. The first part of his autobiography, released in 2015 by Ponte alle grazie (Milan), is entitled Storia di un comunista.