May ’68, from the Critique of Society to the Critique of Political Economy

Rediscovering the Worker’s Centrality: Introduction to Bellofiore’s “Critique of Society and Critique of Economy” 1

The ghost of May ’68 continues to haunt us. Herein resides the paradox: we have not finished with May ’68, despite the by now ritualistic and complacent commemorations, which in this fiftieth anniversary have integrated the global academy. In 1984, Deleuze and Guattari provocatively claimed that “May 68 did not take place” because the subjective crisis it opened had not yet been resolved and therefore the potentialities of the event were still open-ended. In the very same year, the crisis in the national tradition in France was also acknowledged by Pierre Nora, who sought to heal the rift between living memory and official history in what Nietzsche would not have hesitated to call “monumental history,” an inventory of Lieux de Mémoire, of “invented traditions” that would dissolve the history of two centuries of “the class struggles in France” in the soothing balm of consensual commemoration. This abolition of the futur antérieur was inseparable from a positivist teleology, one in which the very meaning of the event was reduced to a causal series containing its immediate consequences. Hence the official line, pioneered by Régis Debray in 1978 for the tenth anniversary, of May as sweeping away outdated authoritarian structures, a cultural revolution ironically inaugurating its opposite, a new capitalist order based on the autonomy of the individual. With this, the event itself is considered little more than a “student revolt,” in which the memory of the largest general strike in European history and the global revolutionary wave is repressed, plain and simple. Illustrating the unity of the worship of the fait accompli and “police thought,” Nicolas Sarkozy campaigned for reelection to the French presidency in 2008 on a ticket of “liquidat[ing] 1968,” while confiding that its real essence was that of laissez-faire. Faced with the collapse of the future in an eternal present, critical thought has often elevated the event itself to a sort of miracle. In this way, its surplus character to the state of the situation ignores the fact that the act of interpretation in which a subject is constituted is also a retrospective relocation of the event in a series of contradictions traversing the situation, but hidden from view, such that its inherent possibilities for change are grasped under conditions of ramifying and uncontrollable crisis, precisely as revolution.

The importance of the text of Riccardo Bellofiore, originally presented at a conference held in Brescia in 1989 on “1968-1988: Twenty years after, a balance sheet,” lies in the fact that it overcomes this dualism of singular event and a teleology, where ‘68 is annexed to modernization theory which in the Italian case represents a validation of the long term perspectives of the PCI, of a progressive aggiornamento of capitalist development rather than its supersession. The problem is and was to grasp the year 1968 as a passage from the critique of society to the critique of political economy, a passage from the student movement to the “long hot autumn” of ’69. The interpretative intervention figures the crisis inaugurated by the Italian “May in slow motion” “not [as] the internal crisis of a mechanism,” but as the “rediscovery of the real worker’s motives against a productive system that instead reduces persons to cogs in a machine.” Bellofiore discovers in this “workers’ centrality” spanning the length of the 1970s a social theory of Fordist crisis instigated by worker insubordination. The conclusion unsettles the consecrated narratives of the Italian radical left. The latter’s failure was not in an obsession with the problematic of power or an overestimation of the antagonism, but in grasping “the relation labor-valorization-crisis-restructuring,” the crisis set off by the struggle over labor time and the counter-attack of capital. 

Behind this lies, dentro e contro, a sophisticated critique of theoretical operaismo. Tronti famously distinguished, on the one hand, between “labor-power” as fully integrated within capital, and on the other, the “working class,” labor that refuses to be incorporated by capital. In an 1982 essay published in Unità Proletaria 2, Bellofiore recalled that in the act of exchange on the labor market it is labor-power and not labor that is appropriated by capital. But, as we see in his text, it is “the peculiar characteristic of this commodity…that the separation of the commodity sold (labor capacity) from the concrete individual is impossible.” Labor must be extracted from living labor by capital, rendering the class struggle in production inevitable. In theoretical operaismo, the internal contradiction within wage labor is absent: on the one hand, as abstract labor producing surplus value it produces capital, and on the other, in reproducing itself as labor-power through exchange with variable capital it is also the product of capital. In turn, the contradiction between capital and labor either disappears, is reduced to distributive struggles (Negri’s “wage as independent variable”) or involves an impossible exit from labor itself (“refusal of work”). The crisis of the ’70s instead arises from the “autonomy of the use value of labor-power from the movements of capital” whose objectivity is ignored by all those declaring “the end of the law of value.” Against the “possessive memory” of commemoration and “eulogy to the absence of memory” (Negri), strategic reason turns to a history of the present. In short, these would be the main premises of the discussion.

— Tijana Okić


“The workers’ struggle appeared in such a form that it was neither simply redistributive nor merely normative, but became political in a narrower sense in that it often profoundly weakened one of the conditions necessary for the realization of the capitalist relation, namely the subordination, the lack of autonomy of the working class within the process of production […] the economic and social crisis is essentially due to this workers’ thrust in the sense that the process of accumulation, already hit by the successes at the beginning of the sixties on the terrain of distribution, was later hit even harder by that conquest of workers’ autonomy which has severely limited the possibility of a capitalist response in traditional terms, that is in terms of an increase in the degree of exploitation.”

— Claudio Napoleoni

“The problem of others is just like mine: resolving it together is politics: resolving it alone is selfish.”

— From Letter to a Teacher 3

A Non-protagonist

I was only a spectator of ’68, and yet it has to an extent defined what I have become. 4 Above all, I was a spectator because of time and place. Between the end of ’67 and the summer of ’68 – the period in which the real ’68 developed in Turin and Trento, Pisa and Rome – I was actually very young, and I lived elsewhere: ’68 reached me as a somewhat distant echo, like one among many of the fashions of the roaring ’60s, and I remember it annoying me somewhat. I was a kid, but already terribly moralistic even then.

I arrived in Turin with my parents in September of ‘68. It was the dawn of what would later become the workers’ ’69: the great absence – as I will argue – in the commemorations of these years, squeezed between the twentieth anniversary of the student struggles and the bicentenary of the French Revolution. Two events to which almost everyone now feels heir, whilst virtually nobody wants to hear about this other twentieth anniversary. I encountered the wave of ’68 at high school, one of the places where the insubordination which started in the universities spread like wildfire. My memory of it is not a particularly happy one, at least on the individual level: the culture of the student movement had already become (I do not know if it had always been thus, but I would not rule it out a priori) normative and punitive; a certain language, certain practices, a certain radicalism were by now more or less mandatory. Yet it was a new way of being active, capable of transforming oneself and the place where one spent a good part of one’s day, and not take anything for granted.

The months and years to come were indeed marked by workers’ struggles, and by the repercussions of the student struggles of ’68 and the struggles within the factories of ’69 in almost the whole of society. Here as well, on a personal level, not everything went right. My father experienced the workers’ struggles from the other side: a police officer who rose early in the morning to go and stand in front of the factories to defend the established order, not to criticize it; I never really managed not to be worried about this, or even to be on his side. Certainly, however, those pickets and internal factory demonstrations seemed to me not totally separated from the values ​​of freedom and equality he had taught me.

The fact that I became an economist, though I enrolled in a law degree – and in the way I did it, as an economist who wants to do that somewhat strange and peculiar thing, now definitely retro, namely a “critique” of economy – was, I believe, also due to these beginnings. Freedom for all and not just for some, real and not only formal equality involved fundamentally questioning this society, above all when insubordination affected what seemed to reveal itself once more as the central place, the “social relations of production” in the factory. For me, a budding intellectual, the best way to participate was to become an economist and Marxist. An expert in that science that explains how and why this society is based on the exploitation of labor, how and why the primacy of the economic is the heart of supervised freedom and merely abstract equality. But also a critic of that science: because only the destruction of the real primacy of the laws of production over women and men placed on the agenda the concrete possibility of other ways of being together.

An Unstable Equilibrium

In many discussions of ’68 in the last year the economy is strangely absent. When I say economy, in fact I mean two things. On the one hand, the material bases of an international phenomenon like the student protest of those years. On the other hand, the role, if there was one, of economic analysis in the culture of the “sixty-eighters.” In what follows, intended as a mere “contribution,” I would like to explain myself and the reason for this absence; and demonstrate why it seems to me that this absence represents a problem. If the question turns out to be not only mine, I may follow up my notes, which for now are little more than a provocation, in a more developed form.

I will approach the question from a distance, summarizing what was written and said on the twentieth anniversary. If we exempt journalistic commemorations (the excellent one by Il Manifesto; of the others, it is better to keep silent), it seems to me that ’68 has basically been discussed in two ways. On one hand, memoir or cultural analyses, of which the most thorough and felicitous seem to me the books of Luisa Passerini, Autoritratto di gruppo [Group Self-portrait], and Peppino Ortoleva, Saggio sui movimenti del 1968 in Europa e in America [An essay on the movements of 1968 in Europe and America]. On the other hand, readings on the political consequences of ’68, a good example of which are two interventions at the recent Turin conference, one by Gian Giacomo Migone (“Il caso italiano e il contesto internazionale” [The Italian case and the international context], partially published in L’Indice under the title, “Chi parla e chi tace” [Who speaks and who is silent], November 1988), the other by Nicola Tranfaglia (“Il ’68 e gli anni ’70 in Italia” [’68 and the ’70s in Italy], which partly takes up theses also contained in his introduction to the book Vite sospese [Suspended lives]).

In each type of analysis, ’68 corresponds to a different constellation of facts. In the field of memory or cultural analysis, ’68 is, more correctly, what makes that event a unique and particular moment, an unexpected novelty. By contrast, those who wanted to pose the problem of the political outcomes of ’68 have generally emphasized what the “sixty-eighters” have become and what was born from ’68, demonstrating thus the continuities with what came after ’68 and the features of the (inadequate) institutional response.

The first type of analysis seems to me more helpful in understanding what ’68 really was. Indeed, there is a convergence between the conclusions of Ortoleva’s essay and those derived by Luisa Passerini from the testimonies she collected. Unless I am forcing Ortoleva’s argument somewhat, it seems to me that it can be summarized in the following terms. ’68 is a planetary event and can be temporally delimited in the period between the facts of Berkeley in ’64 and the French May. Its nature is that of a generational “movement” (of “youth rebellion”) seeking to be dynamic and open against the fixity and closure of the “system” into which it refuses to integrate and from which it wants to separate; of a movement, born in the school, which makes knowledge and its transmission the very object of criticism as a reproducer of roles, inequalities, authoritarian or subordinate personalities, atomization; in short, a movement that breaks the rules by “speaking up” about its own condition, rejecting its immutability.

Anti-authoritarianism, criticism of roles, speaking up, egalitarianism can be seen as the most original features of ’68. The uninterrupted character of the movement, the struggle against oppression starting from oneself (in the double sense of combating the oppression that one personally experiences, and the oppressive personality within the self), the ability of one’s own partial condition to illuminate the universal mechanisms of power, cannot but push the student struggles to reject any compromise; but therefore, also to abandon the school sooner or later. “The legacy of ’68,” concludes Ortoleva, “is not and cannot be an institutional order […] nor an ideology or a specific culture. It is rather a field of tensions, at whose center is an ambivalence, perhaps a founding one, but in any case, one more profound, an ambivalence of youth rebellion – between universalism and partiality, between the irreducibly subjective character of the demands of one’s own action and culture and the pretension of attaining absolute knowledge and results. 5

It seems to me that Luisa Passerini in her Group Self-portrait also arrives at the conclusion of a miraculous balance between opposites, in which the originality of ’68 would truly consist. Where the balance, the “double soul” – as it is effectively defined – still refers here to the relation-opposition between partiality and universality, between recognizing oneself as equal and valorizing the differences between individual liberation and the collective movement. An equilibrium which is temporary, tends to dissolve, turning into its opposite. “We are dealing with the relationship between liberation and authoritarianism within the movement, between the new possibility of speaking for all and the different weight of the words of some, thus democracy could turn into – as it indeed did in the following decades – a democratic show, the pretension of equality without recognizing disparities.” 6

In this interpretation, the accent is on the discontinuity of ’68 from what came later; a discontinuity that often becomes a judgment of ’69 and then the seventies as impoverished when compared to the rich heritage of ’68. A judgment I share only in part. As will be argued, it is certainly true that ’68 could not reproduce itself exactly by extension in time and space from school to society: moreover, this is my central thesis, that the “new” equilibrium of ’68 could not but be unstable and turn into something different; that the affirmation of one’s right to be a subject had to be put to the test of the encounter with the other. In other writings, Luisa Passerini seems to view the whole of the next decade as a break with ’68, almost a reversal of good into evil. “The discontinuity is primary,“ writes Passerini in an article in Il Manifesto 7, on many levels: in the relationship between movement and organization, between words and political action, between the individual and the collective.” A discontinuity so emphatic that it compels us to abandon the terrain of historical discourse strictly speaking and turn to the deeper level – to be carefully handled – of psychoanalytic and socio-psychological analysis, where a continuity traversing the “new left” at the level of biography, even between ’68 and terrorism, cannot being denied. Thus, for example, in her introduction to the special issue of the Rivista di storia contemporanea on Female identity and political violence, terrorist violence is dubiously reduced to an originating ambiguity of ’68, between the affirmation of new moral values ​​and the acceptance/reproduction of the logic of violence and death embodied in the system, at first symbolic but then even more dramatically real when the rich imagination of the very beginning is replaced by the repetitive and blind imaginary of armed struggle. 8

I do not mean to deny the undoubted limits of the ’70s. But I believe that those limits – perhaps in an even more disconcerting fashion – are related not so much to the retreat of the Italian ’68, as if one’s own memory were blurred, but to its unpredictable success, which forced it to change. A success constituted by the encounter between the student ’68 and the workers’ ’69 and therefore by the continuation of a radical social conflict in the early seventies, which once again posed the question of power in unprecedented ways. What was missing was the capacity and perhaps also the instruments (of economic and political culture) needed to deal with the high level of the disequilibrium. The strong discontinuity, of which left terrorism was the expression in the second half of the seventies, can thus be seen as a poisoned legacy of a subjectivity that continued to believe itself omnipotent, without recognizing and understanding how that disequilibrium was closed off, how objectivity returned deaf and dumb.

But a defeat does not render the battle meaningless.

An Impossible Reformism

The merit of the arguments put forward by Migone and Tranfaglia consists in posing the issue of the relation between ’68 and the prolonged crisis that followed in the Italian case. In the words of Tranfaglia: “If the explosion of ’68 was basically global, or at least involved Europe and America, only in Italy (and in part, but with different characteristics, in West Germany) did it trigger a crisis destined to last fifteen years (assuming that today, as we write, it is really over), to display a long cycle of protests and bitter social conflicts, and finally end in terrorism.” 9 Let us put aside here this straight line somewhat hastily drawn between the student struggles and terrorism, which we do not find particularly convincing. Tranfaglia’s legitimate question concerns the reasons for this Italian peculiarity, what explains that anomaly constituted by what came to be known as the “May in slow motion”; and to answer this question Tranfaglia thinks it necessary to sketch an analysis of “the characteristics of the Italian situation with respect to the other countries of Europe and the West by which once could make a comparison.” 10

Migone puts forward a similar demand for attention to the economic and political context while taking care to close the post-1968 period in the middle of the next decade: “what is commonly called ’68 merely marks the beginning of a historical phase extending to the 1976 general elections where, for the first time since April 18, 1948, a power structure that had dominated Italy for twenty years was radically challenged.” 11 The problem for both historians is that of a political history of the seventies, which recognizes that ’68 had opened, to quote Migone, “a contest of power.”

These intentions, once again, cannot be gainsaid. However, the answers given by both Migone and Tranfaglia are to say the least disappointing. For both, the prolongation and later entrenchment of the Italian crisis is the result of the incapacity of the ruling class of our country to offer a reformist response to the new movements. Tranfaglia writes that “the Italian ruling class failed to give an adequate reformist answer to the existing problems and those raised by the student revolt and the workers’ mobilization that followed” 12: no university reform, but only liberalization of access and degree programs; approval of the Labor Code, but “in a backward economic and social (but also cultural and conventional) context.” 13 Hence, on the one hand, new subjects, the young students and workers, whose demands were radicalized by the absence of a reformist response, thus opening a political crisis; on the other hand, the situation worsened because from 1973 political crisis overlapped with an international economic crisis (caused by the increase in the price of oil) and was amplified by the uneven and dependent nature of the previous “economic miracle.”

Migone’s arguments are no different. Some quotations will suffice: “In this university without Freud and Keynes, where Marx himself is buried under a thick layer of philology” the academics “are unable to satisfy demands for a renewal of cultural methods and contents within a structure that is not only authoritarian, but mostly incapable of providing tools for a critical understanding of contemporary society”; “faced with student protest, the authorities, from the government to the police and judicial system, proved incapable of offering a dialectical response, or at least the kind of effective combination of repression and reform that characterized the response of other, perhaps more conservative, but certainly stronger governments around the world”; “above all, our rulers knew that if the virus of opposition – mind you, not of revolution – was extended to other social groups the latter would have been less inclined to leave things as they were and go nowhere as the students had done.“ All in all, besides the students, “a vast and well-developed movement demanded the realization of an unfinished constitutional project, at times consciously, at times confusing a long awaited democratic revolution with the Bolshevik one.” 14

Why is this answer disappointing? First of all, because it fails to understand the Italian ’68 proper: which certainly not only did not think of itself – and in fact was not – a demand for modernization, updating or “democracy”; and the similarity and communication with other “sixty-eights” would suffice to prove it, as would the continuing relevance of the critique of the role of the intellectual in an academic setting today entirely devoted to “modern“ specialism – despite much talk about Freud, the success of a bastardized Keynes, the definitive shelving of Marx. Secondly, because it is incapable of understanding the true peculiarity of the “Italian case”: that is, the fact that when in ’69 the workers do the same as the students, when anti-authoritarianism becomes a struggle within and against the factory, then a social and economic crisis breaks out that cannot be recuperated by a reformist response precisely because of its radicality. Finally, because the judgment of the Italian situation as backward is not able to explain the fact that in Italy, on the contrary, the crisis of the Fordist and Keynesian form of post-war development matures ahead of other advanced capitalist countries.

The next paragraphs will endeavor to explain some of the moments of this situation, referring once again to what is present or absent in the Italian discussion of ’68.

From students to workers

It is worth dwelling upon one particular situation, that of Turin. The reason is not just to render more effective and concise an argument that should certainly be more attentive to differences. The choice of Turin as a laboratory to study the meeting between the student movement and workers’ struggles is motivated by two considerations. The first is that in this city the latest characteristics of the student revolt were revealed with particular clarity: this is emphasized, and rightly so, by both Ortoleva – who identifies in Turin and Trento the most original position of the Italian ’68, according to which “the extension to the movement of society proceeds from the universality of mechanisms of domination and oppression discovered within the school” 15 – and Passerini, for whom “the connection between speaking out and subjectivity was particularly significant” 16 in Turin. The second is that in Turin – due to the visible predominance of the moment of production strictly speaking, of the great factory, of the monoculture of an industry that was and would long remain the driving force of Italian economic development – the workers’ conflict would symbolically and materially determine its most significant consequences.

In a speech at a recent conference organized by the University of Turin, Marco Revelli presented us with an account of the first phase (November 1967-February 1968) of the Turin movement. 17 I would like to highlight some points from it, which confirm what I said earlier in the case in question. The November occupation triggers a radical innovation in the forms of student struggles, already initiated a few years previously in the city at the foot of the Alps. The innovation, particularly evident in the “linguistic transformation” of the student movement, is constituted by “a real and proper ‘Copernican revolution’ regarding the conception of politics […] the problem of politics is abruptly reduced to the space of the control of individuals in their daily lives.” 18 The struggle against (academic) power thus has local and particular value (the oppression against which one rebels is personally experienced and precisely and concretely identifiable) and yet also universal and general (it is representative of a student condition, which is itself emblematic of the authoritarianism implicit in neocapitalism, and not only in the latter). The hierarchy between the transformation of structures and the transformation of oneself is reversed with regard to the tradition of the left: the efficacy of political action “is considered primarily in terms of the transformation of consciousness, of one’s way of life and thinking, of one’s own autonomy,” 19 to the point that “only through a collective process of liberation can the individual fully affirm himself as such, can the “damaged” and questioned I reconstruct itself autonomously.” 20

A position of this kind, expressing to a large degree the moods of a good part of the student mass, found itself, perhaps inevitably, faced with the attempt to discredit it by its counterpart, that is by an academic power capable only of a negative and repressive response. The exit from the university therefore appears retrospectively as necessary step for the movement to maintain itself as such.

In the Turin case, we can identify two great meeting points of the student movement with the “others” lucidly recalled by Luigi Bobbio in one of the supplements to Il Manifesto. Initially, the line of the “long march through the institutions” seemed to prevail, which in Turin “translated into a hypothesis of encirclement of the big factory. The student movement had to avoid dealing directly with the complex and little known problems of the working class of Fiat, but should instead have tried to extend its subversive practice to neighboring groups (secondary school students, students taking evening classes, the professions, etc.) which, thanks to analogous starting points, could have more easily, and completely autonomously, drawn together the methods and contents of the student struggle“ 21 However, the line of the supporters of an intervention among the workers was in the minority. But, continues Bobbio, the enlargement of the student movement to other social groups turned out to be slower and more difficult than expected: which explains how the workers’ revolt at Fiat in May 1969 drastically altered the picture even for the majority component of the Turin movement, which was later joined by numerous representatives from other cities: “we had by now implicitly accepted that we would transform ourselves into external avant-gardes, into full-time militants, even though not yet (for a short period of time) party militants.” 22

One should say something further about these workers’ struggles, which today appear as a fracture in the character of the movement. What enabled such rapid communication between students and workers, so that the latter, again to quote Bobbio, saw the former as “legitimate interlocutors”? 23 And what was it, on the other hand, specifically about the workers’ conflict that justified, at least in part, the re-emergence of the theme of organization and politics in the traditional sense, sidelined in the student struggles of ’68? The culture of the (Turin) students was not unfamiliar with references to the working class, at least when looking at the formation of many militants; I do not think I am greatly mistaken in identifying among the main sources a certain Italian workerism of the sixties (in particular, Panzieri and the Quaderni Rossi) and the Frankfurt philosophers, directly or through the theses of the German movement. To some extent, one had to break with workerism in order to underline the specificity and novelty of the very struggle of the students; and the Frankfurt roots of the German movement gave a theoretical gloss to the rupture. Bobbio again provides what seems to me a fruitful reading: Dutschke’s thesis had an extraordinary allure, which “in our eyes consisted in proposing a non-hierarchical image of the fronts of struggle without a central and privileged subject. Identifying all institutions (from schools, to churches, to newspapers, to factories) as places of oppression and authoritarian manipulation not only legitimized the autonomous role of the student movement (liberating students from the complex of being in a marginal position with respect to the productive sphere), but also authorized a certain equivalence between the liberation struggles wherever they took place. In a society without a center the role of the party did not seem at all indispensable.” 24

However, with the workers’ ’69 things went in the opposite direction: the rediscovery of a center, with the workers’ struggles, leading the “groups” to re-evaluate organization and the party.

The rediscovery of the center

Examined more closely, the encounter between the students and the autonomous struggles of the workers inside the factory does not seem explicable by any greater adequacy of the dominant ways of thinking in the student movements of the other cities compared to that typical of Turin. The ambiguous role of students as a labor force in formation – a thesis widespread in Pisa – does not seem to have played a very significant role: a labor force which, as Rossanda aptly pointed out, far from being functional to economic development would soon be revealed superfluous to it. Nor does it seem that the university struggles represent a mere negation by the students of their own intellectual condition in some way analogous to the “refusal of work” which, according to cursory workerist readings, had characterized the struggle in the factories of the sixties.

I believe the opposite is truer: that the characteristics of the workers’ struggles of ’69 show, where least expected, the farsightedness of the theses of the Turin movement. That is, I believe that the novelty of ’69 is given by the fact that the workers “behaved like the students.” I take one of many possible examples from an article published, as I write, in Il Manifesto. This is the text of an interview with some workers during the hot autumn of ’69, never published by the Corriere della Sera, and now made available by Pino Ferraris from his archives. One of the workers says: “I want to explain the decisive moments of these struggles: the wildcat strikes, the struggle over the collective agreement that Fiat tried to stop by laying off 30,000 workers. The boss thinks he can buy a worker with the salary just as he would buy a kilo of apples. You sell yourself and I pay you. Then I use you just as I want. An apple can be sliced, cooked, left to rot […] or eaten. The fate of the commodity is in fact that of being consumed […] But the worker is a rather special commodity, it is not enough to sell himself at a good price, he does not want to let himself be consumed by the bosses […] he is a commodity that wants to have the power to control the manner of its consumption every day, this is why we are struggling at and over work for workers’ control.” 25

Anti-authoritarianism, autonomy, control of one’s own destiny, refusal to accept a condition presented as unchangeable, politics as a struggle for self-determination and the widening of the spaces of concrete freedom in one’s own life: all characteristics found in this as in other testimonies 26; and they contradict both readings of the Marxist-Leninist type then gaining in strength, with the recovery of the essential role of the external avant-garde to “politicize” merely trade unionist spontaneous struggles, and the widespread workerist interpretations for which the workers’ struggles were “irreconcilable” struggles for an income separated from labor.

Still, there is something more to the above words. There is precisely the recovery, as if with captions provided, of the very heart of Marx’s labor theory of value, beyond all the mechanistic encrustations that finally (and rightly) consigned it to oblivion. Namely, there is the idea that in capitalist society there is really a center constituted by the production of commodities aimed at a profit; and that this profit has no other motive than surplus labor, constituted by the difference between the exchange value (quantity of labor objectified in the commodities purchased by the salary) and the use value (labor performed). The autonomy of the use value of labor-power from the movements of capital – which is the essence of ’69 – refers to the peculiar characteristic of this commodity so different from the others, that is, to the fact that in this case – unlike precisely the apple referred to by the interviewed worker – the separation of the commodity sold (labor capacity) from the concrete individual is impossible. Rediscovery of the real worker’s motives against a productive system that instead reduces persons to cogs in a machine – this was the “workers’ centrality” of the time. A centrality that – incarnated in radical struggles capable of spreading and multiplying everywhere – showed itself not as the reflection but the negation of the centrality of the factory, typical of the industrialist culture of both left and right. 

It is perhaps no coincidence that these years witnessed a renewed interest, within and beyond economics, towards Marxian theory. In particular, value theory could now present a new visage, a theory of social crisis capable of explaining in large part the blockage of capitalist accumulation. Claudio Napoleoni, an economist who explained well this relation between the theoretical problematization of the basic categories of Marx’s discourse and their creative use to interpret the Italian situation, wrote in 1973: “the workers’ struggle appeared in such a form that it was neither simply redistributive nor merely normative, but became political in a narrower sense in that it often profoundly weakened one of the conditions necessary for the realization of the capitalist relation, namely the subordination, the lack of autonomy of the working class within the process of production […] the economic and social crisis is essentially due to this workers thrust in the sense that the process of accumulation, already hit by the successes at the beginning of the sixties on the terrain of distribution, was later hit even harder by that conquest of workers’ autonomy which has severely limited the possibility of a capitalist response in traditional terms, that is in terms of an increase in the degree of exploitation.” 27 An economic crisis precisely because it is a social crisis: a crisis that by its very nature went beyond any possible reformism.

The culture of the protagonists of the struggles of those years, which soon crystallized into the “New” Left, was able to join with and span the growth and multiplication of the movements from ’69 to ’72; but it did not know how to relate the antagonistic radicalism of the struggles, above all the workers’ struggle, to an analysis of the crisis. It was therefore forced to oscillate between registering struggles – whether real or imaginary it matters little now – always seen as radical and victorious, and denouncing a capitalist or institutional reaction interpreted through the reductive lens of “conspiracy.” Following the argument I have presented, things were very different: the struggles were really able to affect vital nodes of power relations within the factories and without; precisely because of this they gave rise to a crisis of accumulation that, in the absence of a “political outlet,” would sooner or later give rise to a reaction of the system, taking the form of inflation, decentralization, restructuring. 28

As anticipated, these considerations lead me to a judgment very different from the one dominant today. The limits of the first half of the seventies – radicalism up to ’73, and the politicism of the parties of the next three years – cannot simply be first attributed to an overestimation of the force of the conflict, and then to an organizational regression. In fact, the structural crisis of capitalism, in which the social struggles had been concentrated, would have required a culture capable of interpreting and attacking the relation labor-valorization-crisis-restructuring. A culture that was lacking, and that certainly did not exist within ’68. Frankfurt culture hardly satisfied these needs. But even workerism, which had moreover rediscovered in workers’ antagonism the only irreconcilable contradiction of capitalism, had with Tronti made it the origin of a continuous capitalist development induced by struggles; or, by contrast, with Panzieri, the cause of the final collapse of capitalism, buried by the mass-worker, read as the last of the figures assumed by Marxian abstract labor.

The consequence was that between ’72 and ’73 the “groups,” which gathered what was left of the old student movement, faced with a radically changed situation also due to their own actions, ended up turning to the (poor) incomplete economic and political culture of the left. Thereby they replaced the critique of the imperialism and “waste“ of the United States that could be derived from Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital, which summarized the economic knowledge of ’68, with a bit of something like breakdown theory from orthodox Marxism, or a bit of conflict theory from left Keynesianism and neoricardianism. And as far as political culture was concerned, their choice was even worse, picking up once more a lot of the paraphernalia of the Third International. But, if what I have said is plausible, the problem is neither the radicalism of the early seventies, nor the posing of the question of power, but rather the incapacity of the whole left, “old” and “new,” to respond to the economic and institutional innovations with which the “system” responded to the crisis and disrupted the movements.

Instead of a conclusion

A trace of this problematic can be found in recent writings on ’68. In his book Peppino Ortoleva advances the thesis that an ambitious project may be discerned in the writings of many of the members of the student movement: “a project of critique of the social sciences parallel to the Marxian critique of political economy, a science of revolution adequate to the characteristics of late capitalism where domination is no longer centered on economic structures but traverses the whole of society. A critique of the social sciences that was supposed to ‘go beyond’ the Frankfurt school by translating the latter’s theoretical insights into revolutionary political practice; to reunite knowledge starting from the fundamental unity of the social structure and its oppressive mechanisms which were simultaneously social, psychological, economic and cultural; to translate that knowledge into a practice of liberation.” A project whose abandonment, according to Ortoleva, was determined “by the demands of a mass movement of totally unpredictable dimensions and power, by the process triggered throughout the world by the model of the French May, which re-proposed a traditional image of the revolution, and favored a return to the critique of political economy as a fundamental science of society.” 29 A position that, as we saw on the basis of the arguments of Luigi Bobbio, guided the choices of the Turin movement during a certain period.

Another suggestive line of argument is proposed by Guido Viale in the most recent supplement to Il Manifesto on ’68, when he writes that the cultural horizon common to the different movements that followed between ’68 and the early seventies was “the social approach to the problems of man in the world” and “the irruption of everyday life in the political struggle,” which were later sharpened in the analysis of roles, the sanctions that structured them and the forms of consensus that tended to reproduce them. “This approach had taken the movement – the movements – quite far: well beyond the sphere of a particular institution – the university: to those who were back then called in the professional world ‘technicians,’ to the administrators of justice and social services and their predestined victims.” 30) But above all, “the same type of approach, applied by the protagonists of factory struggles to their own lived experience, would endow the concept of the working class with a depth and richness of content which is the very substance of the ‘speaking up’ represented by the ‘hot autumn’ and that ‘workers’ centrality’ spanning the length of the ’70s.” 31 This centrality, Viale concludes, expired “when the explosive charge unleashed by its ‘self-analysis’ exhausted itself.” 32

The two quotes complement and correct each other nicely, showing the wealth and limits of the long wave of ’68; moreover, they allow me to summarize my argument and better identify the problematic that it limits itself to defining. The passage from the critique of society to the critique of political economy has as its primary cause the emergence of a workers’ centrality which indeed has the characteristics Viale attributes to it. For this reason, far from signifying the step backwards alluded to by Ortoleva, it constitutes an unexpected but powerful redefinition of the critique of political economy as the critique of society.

At the level of social structure, the Italian case showed in a sharper form a characteristic proper to the Fordist and Keynesian development model as such, namely the modeling of social and institutional behaviors on factory ‘rationality’. A model reconciling an increase in the production of commodities with its extension to activities other than factory work thanks to pressure on the working class. Factory work was thus more and more central both because it supported an ever more complex articulation of society and because it became the model for the other forms of activity. A centrality of factory work which, however, began to be accompanied by the reduction of its relative weight.

The modes of extension of the factory logic in a total mass society and the role of the student condition in this context deserve further comment. The social environment permeated by Fordism progressively reveals itself, under the façade of well-being and freedom, as an environment in which the individual has less and less possibilities to choose and is subject to a subtle but no less despotic control. A fascinating book by Bruno Bettelheim, The Informed Heart, published in 1960, 33 seems to me to perfectly exemplify the anxiety increasing at the time: against any complacency, it shows that there is a disturbing parallelism between the experience of the Nazi concentration camps and the technological, consumerist and affluent society of post-WWII capitalism.

In both cases man himself appears to reduce himself to a means, subjugated, devoid of self-respect: incapable of autonomy, disintegrated within, subject to ever more rigorous external controls.

Bruno Bongiovanni conveniently draws our attention to the 1966 situationist pamphlet, On the Poverty of Student Life, which illustrates the specificity of the student condition in mass society. According to Bongiovanni, the document claims that “the student, thus rendered irresponsible and docile, is placed in a condition of minority: in exchange for the promise of a possible future co-optation into the ruling class or at least the expanding service sector, he finds himself subjected to the dual authority of the family and public institutions […] However the student is, according to the authors of the pamphlet, in a subordinated position but enjoys as both burden and blessing a relative critical capacity and above all free time, which makes the ‘system’ appear to him as a source of alienation, and the ‘totality’ as a false totality.“ 34

The particular situation of the student reveals a universal condition, an arbitrary yet objective social authoritarianism which the more it extends from the factory to subjects of uncertain sociological status the more it loses legitimacy and provokes revolt. Here the student struggle finds the reason for its expansion first to society and then to the factory, reversing the path of Fordist rationality.

This economic and social system proved itself vulnerable to insubordination, especially when revolt ended up affecting the nodal point of the rate of productivity. The most convincing analyzes of the global economic instability from the mid-sixties onwards have in fact identified its most profound cause in a rupture of that implicit pact between capital and labor on which post-war development was founded: a pact that provided labor with gains in the field of consumption and capital with gains in the field of production. Also, from this point of view, the Italian case appears not so much backward as anticipatory. The crisis of the early sixties gave rise to a sequence of inflation and deflation, which led to a freeze in investments; the subsequent increase in production was almost entirely due to an increase in labor intensity which made transparent and intolerable the relation between the despotism of factory command and the quantity of production. In “’69” labor time would become the site of direct conflict.

In this context, the hot autumn had more than elsewhere a devastating effect on equilibrium in factory and society. It had devastating effects because, as I have already said, in Italy more than elsewhere the crisis in production was the result of a social crisis. A societal critique of power ended with the radicalization of the struggle against exploitation. It was not the internal crisis of a mechanism: on the contrary, the very technical-organizational structure of the capitalist factory was recognized as socially conditioned; industry showed itself dependent on class relations; and the class relation, which permeated society as a whole, revealed itself to be sensitive to its movements. Consequently, the crisis of the early seventies was not a phenomenon that could be understood by resorting to the separate instruments of economic science or sociological science, as different but complementary points of view. An addition of specialisms was not enough. Instead, a social science was required that took for its object the relation between the objective and subjective, between technical relations and class relations, between economy and society. Which, therefore, was not limited to the theoretical negation of the primacy of the economy over social life, but in reality constructed a society without a center. In fact, a critique of political economy that turned the workers’ “centrality” into its practical lever. 

Even this proposal, no less ambitious than the other, failed: perhaps because, although conveying quite well what was at stake in those years, it was perceived only confusedly. It is understandable that the “sixty-eighters” conserve no memory of it: though I confess that I am troubled by Viale’s explanation that workers’ centrality vanished because the explosive charge of workers’ self-analysis of workers was exhausted. I suspect that at stake were objective changes rather than an internal exhaustion of the workers’ thrust; in particular a transformation of the factory which redesigned the map of subjectivities present there. In a world built according to business rationality, a society in motion had traversed the places of workers’ labor, entering and transforming them throughout the seventies. However, innovation has severed or at least made more complex the relation between control exercised impersonally by the machine system on the performance of work and the direct and personal control of the factory hierarchy over workers – the relation constitutive of the organization of the Fordist factory, and which accounts for the extreme effectiveness of the insubordination of the mass worker of ’68, but is today unfeasible. In the meantime, society has also changed: superimposed on the fusion of integration and sanctions constituted by rigid “roles” is a postmodern and flexible multiplication of identities that individuals can adopt outside of work. Thus, factory and society, workers and movements have separated. 

The legacy of ’68 seems to me inextricably linked to all this. For this reason, what is written about it seems to me useful, indeed essential: but nevertheless partial. One can only write the history of the Italian ’68 if one also writes the history of the seventies; and its memory can only be made whole if the community formed in the struggles and occupations of the time is able to revisit the victories and defeats it met outside the universities and over which it divided.

— Translated by Tijana Okić



1 This text first appeared in print under a different title – “Critica della società e critica dell’economia. Domande e appunti su una assenza negli scritti sul ‘sessantotto’, vent’anni dopo” [“Critique of Society and Critique of Economy: Questions and Notes on an Absence in the Writings on ’68, Twenty Years Later”]. Full citation in footnote 4, below.
2 Riccardo Bellofiore, “L’operaismo degli anni ’60 e la critica dell’economia politica,” in Unità proletaria, n. 1-2 (1982). An English translation is forthcoming by Steve Wright.
3 Translator’s Note: Published in 1967 by Don Lorenzo Milani, a dissident Catholic priest, and written by students from the school of Barbiana in the village of Vicchio Mugello, north of Florence, Lettera a una professoressa documented the class bias of the educational system and the triumph of individualism in post-war Italy. In English, see Schoolboys of Barbiana, Letter to a Teacher, trans. Nora Rossi and Tom Cole (New York: Vintage, 1971).
4 Written in March 1989, and published in 1990 in Pier Paolo Poggio, ed., Il Sessantotto: l’evento e la storia (Brescia: Fondazione Luigi Micheletti, 1990), 155–69. Laura Derossi, Maria Teresa Fenoglio, Luisa Passerini, and Marco Revelli are not responsible for the thesis argued in this paper, however I would like thank them for discussing the topics dealt with here with me.
5 Peppino Ortoleva, Saggio sui movimenti del 1968 in Europa e in America. Con un’antologia di materiali e documenti (Rome: Editori Riuniti, 1988), 201.
6 Luisa Passerini, Autoritratto di gruppo (Florence: Giunti, 1988), 94.
7 Luisa Passerini, “Memoria del tesoro perduto,“ Il Manifesto, September 9, 1988.
8 Ferite della memoria. Immaginario e ideologia in una storia recente,” in Rivista di storia contemporanea, no. 2 (1988): 173–217. Passerini’s conclusion in these writings have at least the merit of facing the question of what the memory of the protagonists easily puts aside. See, for example, in Group self-portrait, the following argument: “Most of the time, memory does not know or does not wish to stop to understand a series of reversals: from the refusal of politics as a profession to the acceptance of an official position; from the denial of the role of the vanguard in the construction of the revolutionary party, from the mockery of the legacy of the thought and experience of the workers’ movement to their adoption in an unintentionally comic manner with a proliferation of organizational structures such as central committees, control commissions, executives, cadre schools” (179). In the book, however, she offers a more balanced and convincing judgment than in later writings: “the groups posed in a crude, anachronistic and authoritarian way the problem of what goes beyond the everyday. They emphasized it a one-sided manner, but evading it leaves a void that can be denied only at a cost yet to be determined” Passerini, Autoritratto di gruppo, 186.
9 Nicola Tranfaglia, “Percorsi del terrorismo. Il ’68, i ‘gruppi’ e la crisi degli anni settanta,” in Diego Novelli and Nicola Tranfaglia, Vite sospese (Milan: Garzanti, 1988), 15–16.
10 Ibid.
11 Gian Giacomo Migone, “Il caso italiano e il contesto internazionale,” mimeographed paper given at the conference Le culture e i luoghi del ’68, Turin, November 3–5, 1988.
12 Tranfaglia, Vita sospese, 23.
13 Ibid.
14 Migone,“Il caso italiano.”
15 Ortoleva, Saggio sui movimenti del 1968 in Europa e in America. Con un’antologia di materiali e documenti, 72.
16 Passerini, Autoritratto di gruppo, 90.
17 Marco Revelli, mimeographed paper
18 Ibid., 25.
19 Ibid., 31.
20 Ibid., 40.
21 Luigi Bobbio, “Prima di Lotta Continua: Da Palazzo Campana il salto nella società senza centro,” in “Il Manifesto 1968,” October 1988, 21.
22 Ibid.
23 Ibid.
24 Ibid.
25 Le parole scomparse degli operai,” in Il Manifesto, March 2, 1988.
26 See, for example, Laura Derossi who rightly recalls “the role played by Lotta Continua in the development of workers’ struggles from ’69 to the early seventies and in particular in affirming a worker’s identity not subordinated to the constraints of their role in the production process, but rather defined on the basis of the right to autonomy, cultural dignity and the conquest of spaces of expression and participation in society as a whole” (“Le parole e le pietre,” Il Manifesto, September 1, 1988). Derossi goes on to define a “myth” of “workers’ centrality”: a “male” myth which “helped to create identities separate from the social fabric that believed themselves powerful.” This observation is not groundless: above all in the second half of the seventies when the “workers’ centrality” ceased to be critical of production and the primacy of the “economic” first in the factory and then in society and became a hierarchical vision of the movements. I have dealt with this in more detail in Riccardo Bellofiore, “Il rosso, il rosa e il verde: Centralità operaia e nuovi movimenti,” in “Quaderni del Cric,” November 1988.
27 Domande e risposte sul nostro giornale che comincia oggi il suo terzo anno di vita.” La risposta di Claudio Napoleoni, in “Il Manifesto,” April 28, 1973.
28 It is worth noting that from this point of view the argument of Ciafaloni and Donolo, from an intervention published in July 1969, according to which “the movement has not caused changes in the structure of power, has not gained real (much less institutional) power in individual organizations and structures, nor more generally modified class relations” (“Contro la falsa coscienza nel movimento studentesco,” in Quaderni Piacentini 38, taken from Quaderni Piacentini: Antologia, 1968-1972 (Gulliver: Milan, 1978), 213) – quoted favorably by both Migone and Tranfaglia in support of their thesis – proved to be untimely at least as regards the last point. The article deserves to be read again today, but for other reasons.
29 Ortoleva, Saggio sui movimenti del 1968 in Europa e in America. Con un’antologia di materiali e documenti, 100.
30 Guido Viale, “Assente è il presente: I fili recisi che ostacolano la ricostruzione storica,” in “Il Manifesto 1968,” December 1988, 12.
31 Ibid.
32 Ibid.
33 The book, whose subtitle is Individual autonomy and mass society, was recently republished by Adelphi. The first Italian edition of 1965 had a different title to the original, namely The Price of Life, which has now been corrected.
34 Bruno Bongiovanni, “Società di massa, mondo giovanile e crisi di valori: La contestazione del ’68,“ in La storia: I grandi problemi dal Medioevo all’Età Contemporanea, Vol. VII, L’Età Contemporanea, Vol. II, La cultura (Turin: Utet, 1988.

Author of the article

is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Bergamo, Italy. He was a collaborator of the journals Quaderni Piacentini and Primo Maggio in the '80s. He participated in Seminar on Money (1981-5) chaired by Augusto Graziani, a major proponent of circuit theory, the idea that the economic process is a circular sequence of monetary flows; in his writings, Bellofiore has sought to demonstrate that the Marxian labour theory of value can be set out in terms of the monetary circuit model. As a member of the International Symposium on Marxian Theory, he has contributed to the international revival of critical research into Marx's critique of political economy, co-editing the following proceedings: The Constitution of Capital. Essays on Volume I of Capital (2004), Re-reading Marx: New perspectives after the critical edition (2009), In Marx’s Laboratory: Critical Interpretations of the Grundrisse (2013). He has also edited: Marxian Economics: A Reappraisal, Essays on Vol. III of Capital (2 vols, 1998); Rosa Luxemburg and the Critique of Political Economy (2009).