The Crisis and Dialectic of Parties and New Social Movements in Italy (1981)

Leonardo Cremonini, Smoking Chimneys (1957)

Editorial Introduction: The following text, written by Rossanda for the same symposium on Nicos Poulantzas’s work as Balibar’s “After the Other May,” probes many similar themes – the decline of the party-form, the upsurge of new social struggles and actors, deep-seated shifts in the capitalist mode of production – but in the Italian context. A document of defeat, this piece should be read alongside Marco Revelli’s “Defeat at Fiat” or Rafaelle Sbardella’s “The NEP of Classe Operaia” (both from 1980) as another vantage point on the wide-scale demobilization of the decade-long cycle of working class struggle in Italy, marked by new political experiments in the factories and on the terrain of social reproduction. 1 Rossanda gives no definitive solutions as to why the institutionalized parties and insurgent social movements were unable to connect or produce lasting encounters, but in the final section she asks pressing questions about what new figures and sites of production imply for our outmoded revolutionary scenarios.

The current crisis reaches largely beyond the Italian context, which only serves as one terrain for analyzing a phenomenon concerning the entire European political system. This crisis also affects the political systems of what is called “real” or “actually existing” socialism, through the culture of the Second and Third Internationals. 

Crisis of the Party-Form

1. From East to West, we encounter the same crisis of parties. Parties are not disappearing, of course, and it would certainly be more accurate to speak of a decline. But even if we move past the the permanence of parties as institutions towards their capacity to create forms, to produce ideas, and represent the masses by taking their desires into account, it indeed appears we can speak of a crisis in the strong sense.

This crisis is particularly visible in the workers’ parties, especially the communist parties, for two reasons. First of all, the party-form emerging from the Second and Third Internationals became the very model of the party in the 20th century. On the other hand, it is precisely this type of mass, purportedly revolutionary, party that is most affected by changes in its social base; by the loss, even the disavowal, of a representation that would be more than symbolic.

2. We can date this decline. First major reference point: 1968. Of course, communist and socialist parties have been outpaced before. But it is only in 1968 – in the advanced capitalist countries in the West, with a strong worker and partisan tradition, and in Chinathat the party-form was put into question. 2 This crisis was a specific one, the result of a new and hitherto unknown level of protest from the youth and the advanced sections of the working class. The content of this critique can be summarized in a few words: the refusal of any delegation of power, whether it be a party or state, henceforth treated as “other” in relation to the new subjectivity of these social agents. For the first time, parties are being viewed as ambiguous fruits of the capitalist system of production and its state-forms, even if before they had been mortal enemies in theory and in reality…

3. This new subjectivity, which no longer sees itself as part of any established group, is most likely the product of the process of global acculturation during the 1960s: an exceptional rise in schooling [scolarité], the socialization of information (both political and “mass media”). This leads to a triple short-circuit: 

– The increasingly active masses constitute themselves as a subject, abandoning their previous “serial” form, coalescing as progressively complex and demanding individuals and groups.

– The end of all possible models of integration, as the limits of the current system confront demands for mobility [promotion] and needs arising from acculturation and politicization. 

– The appearance and circulation of new messages and calls from “zones of unrest” (1968 = the specific spontaneity of social agents, connected to the crisis of the social state in the West + Mao; Marx, Marcuse; or Marx, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara, so many equivalent figures of the primacy of the subject). 3

This “subject” is obviously not new, although its self-consciousness is. Marcuse’s argument for the marginalized’s protagonistic role sheds light on this process: the subjects that were previously “central” to capitalist production and the reproduction of the state (working class and students, members of the old or new ruling classes) suddenly find themselves deprived of any representation in the existing political model, and the social forms and contents of their own parties (or their party-state, their state). Due to this discrepancy between the formation of the subject and its integration within a social and political circuit – even an oppositional one – that can meet its needs, we can speak of a growing “marginalization” of the “nerve centers” of social subjectivity. 

4. The crisis of parties traces back to the crisis of the social state, itself exacerbated and worsened by the economic crisis of 1970s. I will not analyze the latter, as it is clearly an outcome heavily conditioned by the existence of social-welfare states in the developed industrial zones, as well as by the ideology of a social supra-state, neo-capitalist and neo-colonialist ideology, and the North-South ideology of the post-war period (underdevelopment, the politics of aid, etc.). These interactions are well-known and have already been analyzed at the global level. I will limit myself to emphasizing the close links between the decline of the party-form and the state-form, and more precisely the decline of all “progressivist” ideologies of the state. In effect, any party forms itself as a new state, a state in nuce, whether it accepts the rules of democracy, whether it openly aims to overthrow it, or whether, as in the limit-case of terrorism, it functions as a “clandestine party.” The resurgence of the Marxist argument for the withering-away of the state at the end of the 1960s coincided with the crisis of parties. For the workers’ parties, this state in nuce was modeled on its own adversary; and not solely for lack of social imagination (what other state?), but because of the role that a party – workers’ party or not – is called upon to play in a modern or modernized country. The system of representative democracy structures parties as groups or collectives which periodically aim to obtain votes in the given institutional framework, thus determining their organizational form and a major part of the prevailing ideology. In its Leninist structure, the Communist Party itself, so often attacked by the right as “different,” still reflects a system of representation stemming from the modern state. The same source exists even when supplemented by a military model (through the centralization of decisions and the discipline that comes from that), or when the CPs uphold the presumption that they are always “in a state of war,” destined to realize a total transformation of society, with the aim and object being the destruction a part of the enemy class. It does not need to be noted that as more and more communist parties accept the changeover and abandon the notion of revolution, they lose all their internal legitimacy. Indeed, the critique of “democratic centralism” is the first form of the crisis of the Western CPs, and has unfolded in a widespread manner since 1956. 

5. The crisis of the party-form raises problems that demand very complex analyses. I will mention only one: the identification of the “citizen” with the state, a relatively modern phenomenon only achieved in the past few decades. Even revolutionaries identify themselves with a state, a “different” and “future” state. Hence, would not the function of parties be restricted to this limited participation of society within politics, such as it has been given until now? Would this not prevent them from becoming viable – as to their original nature – at the very moment when the masses constitute themselves as “subjects of power,” reducing the role and the capacity for representation of any vanguard, restraining the primacy of the political sphere in relation to “civil society,” challenging any centralization of the will and decision-making? The blockage of the party-form would respond to a situation where a harmonious assemblage – even the harmonious dialectic between “masses and powers,” as it has been developed by the communist Left in Italy – can no longer be established within the state-form, no matter the conditions. The French case, with its functional [à froid] reversal of powers in the framework of a very powerful statism, does not seem to me to invalidate this hypothesis or assumption. We are seeing, rather, a delegation of powers, the extreme and precarious limit that society does not even pretend to identify with (in the strong sense: by providing itself “the ideology of”), since it is content to express itself through the traditional conflicts within the previously delimited political space. 

Crisis of Movements?

1. Movements also appear to be in crisis. They never disappear entirely, since they always leave behind an active sedimentation, at the molecular level, in the ensemble of both society and institutions. They become, then, the specific agents of their crisis, a process that is particularly evident or noticeable in Italy. However, a preliminary observation needs to be addressed. A “movement,” in the strong sense – which makes up part of society, rises up against it, transforms itself, calls for change, assembles and gathers people together, providing them with a non-institutional framework and explosive need for immediate action and presence – does not last. It knows, then, that the dramatic and destructive ebbs are as important as the sedimentations it creates. With the exception of the women’s movement, this has been characteristic of the movements from the last twenty years. 

2. We can make the following argument. Until the middle of the century, movements had a dual character. Or better, they arose from sudden bursts from the margins of society, affected by processes of dominant changes (like certain peasant revolts), by the emergence of subjects and needs that anticipated, through their open and violent form, a dominant tendency. In this case, they were predisposed to become a party or merge with an existing party, subjected to a passive revolution that re-absorbed them within the prevailing system, thus ensuring its modernization. The material content that movements carried forward could be assumed by existing forms of politics and the state through the expansion and modification of the latter. Therefore, only the initial form of these movements – their form at the time of their emergence – disappeared, and with it, the radicalism of their beginnings (since a passive revolution never incorporates everything). Revolt, refusal, demand: a “movement” brings to light urgencies and problems that others have to resolve.

Beginning in the 1970s, movements tended to express subjects and needs that the dominant social bloc, namely the parties and the state, could no longer absorb in a timely manner without abnegating itself. There were no forms – neither the current ruling power, nor those intending to overthrow it – capable of representing these subjects. As for the movements, they did not seem to establish themselves within any institution, new or old. At most, they came to define a non-hegemonic culture, but did not articulate a project or alternative. Movements have since further progressed but subsequently withered, without finding a solution, however partial. They have become frozen in a latent or manifest contradiction, expressing a visible or invisible crack within society, even a form of necrosis in certain political or social zones. In the face of such “inexpressible” needs, if we can call them that, power solidifies and hardens, suffering its own necrosis. These are the problems posed by the revolt of youth, the underclasses, the “asocial groups.” From all this stems the question of terrorism in Italy, the rapid involution of democratic forms in Spain, arriving too late or too soon in relation to already-developed forms of political refusal and electoral abstention that are present in other countries. 

3. These movements raise a crucial question. Is the reason why political parties have not come to represent them due to their own regression towards opportunist positions, i.e. forms of collaboration with the right? Or does this regression, the state’s oscillation between an authoritarian centralism and a “political market” of interests and corporations, between a “strong” state and a “weak” state, indeed reflect the incapacity for political forms (through which conflict has expressed itself until now) to grasp these new demands implicit in the new social movements? 

In the first case, it is not a matter of correcting the political line, or “adjusting” the parties: revolution or passive revolution remain the possible outcomes. In the second case, though, it is a matter of a radical crisis of the form of politics practiced by the parties and the state until now. But what qualifies the argument for obsolescence? The question regarding the crisis of Marxism is thus raised. Is Marx a “dead dog?” Or only Marxisms and Marxists? And in what way? It goes without saying that this “only” is not empty but full of history, whose result is the extreme unripeness/ripeness of change. We would be on precarious ground, a distressing, unfortunate precariousness, rich in new forces, regressions, and schisms. 

4. This is the situation in which capitalist offensives and forms of restructuring have been dislocating subjects and needs. The panoramic view has also changed, redefining the stakes of this double crisis of parties and movements that has emerged from a phase of social and political expansion. The union, that supra-party, finds itself most at risk, like the entire workers’ movement in the proper sense: unorganized and the most advanced, even utopian, upsurges are everywhere in retreat. 

Two supplementary reflections should be added, regarding two movements that do not fit within the previous framework of discussion. First, the new feminism: it has ended up as a “movement,” technically speaking, as it has only led to the accelerated emancipation of women against the limits they have rejected. But it remains a contradiction, as a separate culture, a break in communication with the political and social fabric, a preoccupation with identity [fièvre d’identite] among women, and familial ambiguity. 

As for the recent peace movements, I do not know whether they will be reabsorbed or recuperated; it’s clear, though, that they have broken with past movement forms, youth movements especially. Not only have they been intentionally non-violent, but they do not perceive themselves as antagonistic or minoritarian, and do not express partiality to any party (and with environmentalism as its only explicit origins). The novelty of these movements is tied to a kind of “politicization” of their refusal of politics, which they compare to war; rather, they seek to be “politically” understood through their motivating moral dimension. 

The Italian Case

The situation in Italy during the 1960s seems to be a total exception in the European scene. In the 1950s, Italy experienced a full-fledged capitalist restructuring, accompanied by a massive population shift from the South to the North, urban growth, and the transformation of an agricultural country into an industrial one. This rapid capitalist expansion aggravated existing inequalities between the North and the South, or the cities and the countryside. This expansion ran up against the old state structure, where Christian Democracy, hegemonic since 1948, had preserved a number of fascist or pre-fascist structures (while obviously not being a fascist or pre-fascist formation), despite a new constitutional framework. 

After 1948, the expansion occurred due to the initial setbacks of the workers’ parties: the fall of the Popular Democratic Front in 1948, the break-up of anti-fascist unity; then the assassination attempt on Togliatti, and defeat for the Left; and a later on, the crisis of trade union unity. These setbacks marked the end of the great peasant movements in the South; whence the freeing up of an immense labor supply, without any hope for employment in their home region, and its migration to the huge industrial cities of the “triangle”: Turin, Milan, and Genoa. In this period, there was still a “South” of the North: Venice, which experienced a hemorrhaging of its labor supply towards the triangle. However, certain regions in the center of the country, where the Left was the hegemonic power, curbed or limited their losses and modernized their systems of production due to local powers: this was the birth of the “Emilian model” that was at the core of the Italian situation. 

The failure of the northern working-class should be added to the failure of the peasant movements, as it was mainly defeated in Turin and Milan in a desperate attempt to retain and defend its pre-war structures (Breda) or power acquired during the Resistance (Fiat, Pirelli, Innocenti). Restructuration occurred through a recalibration of forces, in favor of bosses and management, who required total “mobility” within the factories. From 1948-52, difficult, violent, and even armed (now forgotten) struggles took place. From 1953-57, the workers’ movement was silenced, destroyed, and the center-right became dominant, and attempted a coup de force against the Left that was barely deflected: the famous legge truffa [“cheat or swindle law”] of 1953, which aimed to allow the first party to gain a majority to make a constitutional reform. There was also a general depoliticization of the youth during this time. 

1956 could have been the coup de grâce; it was not. In 1957, the first major strike in the North (at Pirelli) took place, and the movement recomposed, continually growing. In reality, the setback of the difficult years (1948-56) was not a disaster; however damaged, the left remained relatively strong, with the strongest Communist Party in the West, and the best leadership (Togliatti = Third International as corrected by Gramsci…). There was also a unified Socialist Party resulting from the Resistance, and a trade union that was now led by an exceptional and popular figure: [Giuseppe] Di Vittorio, who had the ability at the time to amass [englober] very progressive intellectual forces. There was not a collapse, then – much the opposite. The aggressiveness of the party’s opponents allowed for a fairly rapid regrouping against new unitary relations. Above all, however, the very process of capitalist restructuring drew together, in the North, a proletariat that was already formed through peasant struggles, and which actively inserted itself into the “working-class memory” [mémoire ouvrière] of the Resistance and the Northern vanguards. At the onset of the 1960s, they both encountered the “young worker,” a product of acculturation and mass media: this was an explosive mix. 

July 1960 managed to demonstrate this. The Christian Democrats’ attempt to build an alliance with the far right (Tambroni) did not merely elicit an anti-fascist revolt; for the first time, this revolt carried over – in two different ways – to the left parties and the CGIL, who tried to take leadership of it. It was the first appearance of youth, who seemed to be forever at a distance from politics, on the historical scene: the magliette, the extremely combative young person in a tee-shirt, armed with molotov cocktails from the outset (unused this time: the police fired and took five lives in Emilia…) and at times engaging in property damage (especially in the South). There was also an awareness – for the first time post-Resistance – that there needed to be objectives that were “farther left” than Togliatti’s call for the “restoration of democracy.”

As for the Communist Party and the CGIL, both from the inside and the outside, but always on their left, a “movement” takes shape, affirms itself, and sustains itself. Certainly, after 1945, there was indeed a “left” stemming from the maquis with some sort of vague conspiratorial desire (tracts), that famous “duplicity” which Togliatti spoke of. But it found its own more or less avowed references in the party, and it was a survival without any real possibility of hegemony. The new movement of 1960 had no lingering nostalgia for it, and mocked Yalta, claimed to “not know” Stalin, and had no concern for the old fighters…

Through an initial forum of internal discussion which sparked the formation of a left tendency (Ingrao) and a radicalization of young communists, the Communist Party took on the movement. As for the union, it had already undergone a shift after the failures of the 1950s, by displacing its axis of intervention from “Labor Plans” [Plans pour le travail] and defense of the minimum wage, towards the developed factory worker zones of the North, in order to “attract” the totality of wage earners [le salariat]. Whence the discussions over the nature of Italian capitalism, the Southern questions, and the possible impact of neo-capitalism. Facing the effects of protests after a new labor contract, even a victorious one, the union has been been forced to come to a new understanding. This contestation, originating in Alfa Romeo in Milan, is symptomatic: young workers rejecting the agreement, because they refuse to work on Sundays, and to do additional work more broadly, as opposed to remuneration. The union has not previously dealt with this type of worker, who desires not more money but more freedom.

The “movement” was thus sustained by a “social subject” created through an accelerated capitalist expansion that was unable to really bring the North and South together, and a modernization of the state. There are two limits to the dominant socio-political system which also knows its “movement”: that of reformist socialists and left Christian Democrats, always fighting. But this “movement” developed in the midst of a strong left which, until 1968, was able to capitalize on this fact to its advantage: the relative flexibility [souplesse] of the PCI meant that it did not encounter it, and would not encounter any new “movement” during Togliatti’s lifetime. As well, after the great migration to the North, the May 1963 elections saw large gains for the left, the end of the hopes that Aldo Moro had placed in the agreement between the DC/PSI to stabilize the situation, and the split within the PSI. The ranks of the PCI and the CGIL swelled. The Catholic union fundamentally changed, freeing itself of its preferential relations (collateralismo) with the DC. Catholic dissent reared its head. 

This active dialectic between parties and movements continues until 1968. In Italy, as we know, there was not a sudden and concentrated explosion as happened in France. But beginning in 1967, a “movement” formed to the far left of the PCI: the student movement. When it ends, attempting to transform itself into one or several new parties (the new left) the union will take time to manage the tidal wave the students have effected within the working class. This will be the Hot Autumn, the birth of the factory committees, the great season of workers’ power in the factory. This workers’ power is itself the expression of a movement not reducible to the “best” unions. This is why the union of factory councils emerged from below, and will have as a principle, in all of its struggles and negotiations, to find its legitimacy in the grassroots assembly of all workers, unionized or not. Trade union unity was thus forged in the “strong sectors,” including metallurgy. 

In Italy – and I believe this marks a difference with France – 1968 had its roots in the previous decade. It represents a break, opening an era of movements that would not seek recognition in the system of the reformist left [gauche compromis], nor its political forms. Nonetheless, the parties and the union would maintain a relationship of dialogue, polemic, accommodation, agreement, and refusal with the movements. In Italy, the centrality of the worker question and the singularity of the union of factory councils most likely acted as a pivot; the general staff of the parties and movements could vigorously oppose each other to a greater or lesser degree, but contact was never broken, always ready to be renewed. Since 1972, in particular, most of [l’ensemble] the new left has participated in elections (less than half a million votes). Neither the groupuscules nor the movements have disappeared. Among the former, some have established themselves in an enduring fashion, while the latter reproduce themselves non-stop. But the parties – the PCI specifically – have benefited at the electoral level; in 1975 they went on to win the major cities of Rome, Naples, and Turin, adding to the traditional red regions. Unionization only increased. The formation of a new feminism, which translated into a radical critique of politics, and articulated in the great battles over “civil rights” (divorce, abortion), will obviously bypass party frameworks. Nowhere else was there a comparable passage between two institutions: radical, communist parties and feminism. This passage was ultimately expressed within the PCI via the theory and practice of “double militancy.” That is, the de facto recognition of two guiding reference points for communist feminists: while a “citizen” [citoyenne] in the party, she was also a “woman” in the women’s movement, movement in the strict sense of the term. While not a party, the Unione donne in Italia, with ties to the PCI and PSI, also referred to the “movement.” Because it was not fixed in any one institution, because it “coagulated,” divided, and redivided to come back together, it ended up affirming its elusive nature, its irreducible trajectory, in terms of both organization and political culture, even – as in certain women’s groups – culture itself. 

We can show very schematically that this dialectic between parties and movements continued until 1976 when, after the elections, a new government formed with the necessary abstention of the communists, then their support. This turn, prepared in the Historic Compromise, and carried out during the “state of emergency” – due to the crisis and its most dramatic effects after 1974 – marked the end of any real dialectic between party and movements. At the same time, it set off a crisis in the movements, the decline of the PCI, and the repressive response of the state. The experience shows that the PCI came into government (the word power is not able to be used) without the force or ideas sufficient to wage a struggle for hegemony. At most, it has given “new blood” to national unity. At the same time, the CGIL tried to shift its power in the factories towards political economy: it weakened the first without taking hold of the second. The sole result: the transfer of the crisis in industry towards the state, through the auspices several mechanisms of the monetary defense of the wage and employment. The social state and the parties thus found themselves subjected to a nearly unbearable tension. As for the movements, advised to be reasonable [invitês à la sagesse] and in decline, for the first time they were without an audience in the opposing camp – no longer a matter of polemic, but separation, even war. The outbreak of violence and terrorism are the most revealing phenomena. But equally important is the rise [l’essor] of different forms of “autonomy,” which break with the very idea of legality, institution, and socio-political mediation, even though they are fully pacifist.

The rupture between parties and society has grown, but is far from total [accomplie]. This is why, when one speaks of the “crisis” or “decline” of the party-form, it should be seen more as a tendency than a fait accompli. More obvious, on the other hand, is the crisis of the unions, which has lead to the weakening of the councils, the halting of the process of union unification, and the first union defeats, with the all-powerful FLM [Federation of Metalworkers], the united organization of metalworkers, being the first on the list. Non-violent movements are caught between violence or institutionalization: in order to avoid this double bind, they insulate themselves and withdraw, not engaging [s’integrer] in the same way as prior to 1975. As for forms of autonomia, which span a vast area [champ] – from workers’ autonomy properly speaking to unions and autonomous cultures – separate and not easily incorporable, oscillating between ultra-vanguardism and and extreme regression, they made the state their “enemy,” a blackmail which especially affected the communist party. The identification of autonomia with terrorism – made above all by the PCI – opened a haunting chapter in the history of Italian democracy, which resulted in the passing of special [anti-terrorist] laws. 

Such blowblack ended up tracing a “movement” in society, which has actively contributed to the latter’s transformation: voluntary marginalization, refusal of any social or political participation, apolitical violence, drugs, a wave of suicides, malaise among youth who have no organization to turn to. A thousand “movements” persist, producing a culture of conflict [conflictualité], partial and fragmentary; every generalization, every total interpretation, every project being rejected for bearing statism within itself, the institutionalization and negation of deep-seated individual needs. In some advanced sectors of the CISL (FIM-CISL) [Italian Confederation of Trade Unions], the working class itself shared this tendency, often reduced to to an opposition between “wage considerations” and “political economy,” both acting as the symbol for the adversary; at least until the productive sector was again capable of an apparent, decentralized expansion. Over the last year, while capitalist restructuring has forced the councils to their knees, removing them at Fiat (chosen site of the relations of force between the working class and bosses) and striking out at them on every terrain, the theory of partial conflict has also petered out. 

A diffuse politicization remains, skeptical in regards to the left if not openly hostile, as does an intense depoliticization, a kind of active negation. The “movements” are no longer “movements” (which would suggest that they are only movements insofar as the retain the implicit hope for a way out or transfer to other “forms of politics,” or a certain trust in the permeability of the institutional network which has disappeared today). They are becoming fevers, “latencies,” partial cultures or subcultures, acting creatively but molecularly, contradictorily. 

One “movement” that has formed and regrouped very rapidly is the peace movement. In its social composition, modes of expression, and forms, it bears no resemblance to the movements which preceded it throughout the most recent period. Although militants from other movements (feminists, for example) have participated, they have not affirmed their particularity and have adopted the general tone of the new movement. This is a movement, not an “alliance between movements.” The left puts up with it, the government is afraid of it. It does not offer any support for repression. 

Some Final, Provisional Conclusions

1. It is still too soon to provide a complete forecast. In Italy, the split between party and movements has only lasted for five years, and it is not set in stone that the process is irreversible in the short term. The precarity of the movements, the lassitude produced by terrorism, the fall of the ample [généreux] illusions of 1968 – like the so-called “entry of the mass media into the state” – could bring the movements and (primarily) the PCI closer, if the latter is led, through crisis and internal struggle, to abandon both the Historic Compromise and competition with the socialists in view of a Labour Party-esque outcome (lib-lab, free market + labor). As soon as the communist diversity dear to Berlinguer tries to find a grounding in the social sphere (an attempt that seems to be underway now, in December 1981), it is possible that the social sphere will not reject it outright: abandoned to themselves, social movements have come to a standstill. But those who would engage in such a dialogue would be the “subdued” [assagi], reticent movements and a PCI in the process of realignment [mutation], the dual primacy of the political and the social, as they were understood over the past decade, with both now running out of steam [en perte de vitesse]. This would be a phase of re-elaboration whose character, limits, and outcome are difficult to imagine.

2. For the time being, we can affirm the following points: 

a. The crisis of the workers’ party exploded at the moment when it gained access to power. As opposed to the subtle words of one Christian Democrat (“power only uses those who do not have it”), the left has been used by power. In very different conditions, what has been the case in Chile and Portugal has held in Italy as well. Only a quite powerful repressive apparatus hides its collapse [épuisement] in the East. But nowhere has the wave that brought workers’ parties to power received responses to its underlying demands. The contradictions that the left intended to provoke in the system of production and the apparatuses of the capitalist state have reversed direction, while systems of production and the state have maintained themselves or returned to where they were previously. It must be acknowledged, then, that this century has only known a single relation of production (with changes in the property relations of the means of production, and related superstructures) and two state-forms: the bourgeois parliamentary state, oscillating between passive revolution and authoritarian tendencies, and the Stalinist state, with its “progressive” [progressiste] versions in the Third World. 

Some conclusions need to be drawn. First, the concepts adequate for sustaining an oppositional left are not sufficient for structuring a culture and practice of transition, with their limits – even fundamental errors – becoming glaring at the moment of access to power. Following this, the concept of the state needs to be seriously re-analyzed (with the left always oscillating between a simplistic anti-statism and a forced statism, only corrected by the phantasm of worker’ self-management, of which we never know the who, what, or when involved), as well as the ideas of transition, socialism, socialist transition, and the elements of socialism: a theoretical revision as much as a historical one. 

b. Movements appear to be undergoing a fundamental shift in the present moment. If in the past they represented a spontaneous dynamic towards a “totalization” that outstrips [devancer] the political and institutions, today they seem to represent the radicalism of the needs of certain sectors of society, which do not aim for any sort of generalization and even refuse it. 

This shift emerges from a different composition of society and a new relationship – probably irreversible – between the “individual” and the “mass,” where the mass in movement does not confer a basic identity onto individuals. This new social composition traces back, in turn, to several interrelated crises: production, state and party, shaken up by expansion and recession, Keynesianism and Reaganism, centralization and decentralization, the globalization of capital and nationalist tendencies. Fragmentation has ensued, which largely surpasses the classical break between employed workers and the unemployed. First, because even in a phase of expansion, the “workers” with employment have changed, due to the effect of technological transformations; just as the unemployed – in a crisis or not – assume a different status in the social state. But also because a new politicization has taken hold in the “transversal zones” of society, and their civil forms, cultures, and social relations, beginning with the sexual antagonism. From all sides, the primacy of the relation of production as the “principal contradiction” is being put into question. 

c. This fragmentation, this incommunicable radicalism, has produced a culture that is by definition opposed to that of the workers’ movement. Refusing any “generalization,” having read Marx too quickly as “totalizing” (as if Marx had founded a general anthropology rather than a critique of political economy…), it proclaims the end of Marxism, and therefore any overarching [globale] idea of revolution. After a brief passage through the subcultures of revolutions (each one has its own, at its core), this culture has today led to a return of a modernized, classical democracy through Americanism: society would only be an ensemble of interest groups, the working class only representing one among others. The state – the only group reputed to be “non-ideological” – would then arrange [jouer] these interests in a way that ensures their permanent equilibrium, which in turn is guaranteed by the political sphere calibrated for equal rotation. We can recognize the theory of the “political market” here, which re-establishes the autonomy of a politics aligned towards the “center,” set above and unrepresentative of any social base, which would only risk totalitarianism. 

d. The crisis of parties, opened up by a contestation from the left, has culminated in the first instance in a return to the balance of powers, the disavowal of any wholesale transformation. Any kind of change would not be an articulated change but the opposite of change, identified with vulgar Marxism and incapable of understanding and resolving the groundswells (vagues de fond) of a modern society, and therefore repressive and destructive [mutilant] by nature. 

The question that immediately arises in indeed knowing whether, when faced with the globalization of capitalism – unafraid of totalization – we can imagine even partial processes of liberation, without referring to a unifying project which interprets and links different thrusts towards change. The response which asserts that the project of constructing a new historical bloc and the idea of revolution as outmoded – because it reflects a linear conception of the social – is not convincing. 

Of course, the notion of system allows us to grasp a complex and articulated field: capital itself is better represented as a systemic model than a linear one. But every system has its axis, its epicenter. Since the 1930s, the state has tended to be this epicenter, either “in appearance” or by incorporating itself into the process of production and reproduction. But this does not mean that the state is an agent of equilibrium, with different strata, layers, and powers situated on the same level. Every state privileges certain powers, certain social agents, certain modes of social relations, thus tracing a deep line back to the real epicenter of the socio-political system in its totality [ensemble].

The real question is rather: for those who deny the centrality of the working class [centralité ouvrière], where is the epicenter? For the centrality of the working class is not merely “sociological”: it is an image of the centrality of the modes and relations of production with multiple social and ideological formations which intersect and contradict each other. Or further: where would movement come from in a system without an epicenter? How would the need for change be articulated, and on what basis? As for those who still consider the relation and mode of production as central: after a century of the workers’ movement, what has changed? Or, how has society changed? And what about in the contemporary international situation, where one pole is “actually existing socialism,” and the other is the radical modification of subjectivities and subjects themselves? 

Without these questions, without the sketch of a response, the problem of the dual crisis of parties and movements will not surpass the horizon of a more or less ideological [ideologisée] description.

– Translated by Patrick King

This text was originally published as “La crise et dialectique des parties et mouvements sociaux en Italie, in La Gauche, le pouvoir, le socialisme: hommage à Nicos Poulantzas, 120-136.

This article is part of a dossier entitled “The Crisis of Marxism.”


1 For two exceptional, situated accounts of the tangled relations and strategic misfires between the Movement of ’77, one of the last phases of Autonomia which expressed the possibilities of a mass radical politics – and the PCI in its municipal bases, see Meaghan Morris, “Eurocommunism vs. Semiological Delinquency,” in Language, Sexuality & Subversion, ed. Paul Foss and Meaghan Morris (Darlington, Australia: Feral Publications, 1978), 47-76; and Susan Cowan, “The Unhappy Adventures of ‘Alice’ in Blunderland: Counter-culture, Revolt and Repression in the Heart of Italy’s ‘Red Belt,’” Radical America 11.6–12.1 (1978): 67–77. See also Steve Wright, “Operaismo, Autonomia, Settantasette in Translation: Then, Now, The Future,” Strategies 16.2 (2003).
2 The phenomenon has not been extensively analyzed: from Berkeley, Berlin, Beijing, or Turin and Shanghai. In these vastly different situations, the forms of protest were similar. The same is not the case for the student movement in Mexico in 1968, however powerful and bloody (the Tlatelolco massacre in the the Plaza de las Tres Culturas).
3 The appearance of this phenomenon in China in the form of the “Cultural Revolution,” which also “gripped” protests in the West, is singular: on the one hand it traces back to Mao’s “subjectivity” in confronting the 1956 crisis in Russia and the Eastern bloc in Europe; on the other hand, it found “social agents” in the cities, as sites predominantly populated by workers and students, dense with “memory.” Political and social sedimentation suddenly effaced, in the contiguities of relational situations, the very different material and social facts between Paris and Beijing, Turin and Shanghai (in comparable microsocieties: the university, the factory).

Author of the article

is an Italian journalist and one of the founding editors of the left-wing daily newspaper, Il Manifesto. A member of the Italian Communist Party from the time Resistance until her expulsion long with other members of the Il Manifesto group in 1969, she has remained an influential figure and analyst. on the Italian left. In English, she is the author of The Comrade from Milan (Verso, 2008), her political memoirs.