The Word Made Struggle: Notes on Steve Wright’s The Weight of the Printed Word

Non prendere il potere
Cover of A/Traverso, September 1977

Steve Wright has the laudable, if unenviable, position of being best known as the author of a definitive history of a subject immune to definitive treatment – Italian operaismo and its legacies. Originally published in 2002, Wright’s Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism, presented a careful theoretical and historical reconstruction of the development of Italian operaismo in the 1960s and 70s, a movement whose coordinates and influence remain obscure and hotly contested to this day owing to some combination of their disruptive power, the richness of their internal debates and violence of their repression.1 In this now classic work, Wright traces the development of practices central to the operaismo movement in the post-war era as it developed forms of conricerca and inchiesta operaia, radical Marxian sociological practices of “co-research” or “workers’ inquiry” that aimed to forge an intellectual engagement, if not a cooperative political alliance, between people involved in very different lines of work: industrial factory production, intellectual work in primary schools and universities, those engaged in radical journal publication, peasant farming communities, proletarian houseworkers and sex workers, amongst others. These practices would inform a broader analysis by the operaisti of all those myriad forms of work, both paid and unpaid, acknowledged and unacknowledged, that constituted what they would come to refer to as the “social factory.” Wright draws these various histories of theoretical analysis and collaborative practice together expertly into his definition of “class composition” a concept that Storming Heaven deploys as a guiding thread for understanding the tremendous potential and fundamental antagonisms of the movement history it engages.

The book emerged at a time when there was far less in the way of significant secondary literature or original translation in English of the Italian extra-parliamentary tradition. The terms of “autonomia” and “autonomist Marxism” would only gradually become key political signifiers, something of a shorthand for a left anti-authoritarian political horizon generally understood to indicate a prioritizing of working-class resistance and refusal over narratives of capitalist control and innovation and the instability of facile distinctions between economic and political arenas of struggle. To this day, English language scholars often use the terms to refer en masse to widely differing and often irreconcilable political and theoretical traditions. The history of the translation and reception of the key works of operaismo and subsequent groups of autonomia is worthy of study in its own right and intimately bound to the repression of extra-parliamentary groups in 1979, the mediation of the works of key thinkers through exile, French post-structuralism and an ecosystem of small publishers and radicals that served as intermediaries between feminist and workerist movements and groups in the United States, England and Canada throughout the decade.2  

Storming Heaven has played a defining role in the reception of these traditions and its importance, in large part, is due to the capacity to move beyond either their facile celebration or condemnation presenting operaismo in the glory of its internecine conflicts and contradictions as well as the rigor and unrealized potential of its collective movement thought and struggles. Wright’s new work, The Weight of the Printed Word: Text, Context and Militancy in Operaismo, is less an official history than Storming Heaven which charted the history of operaismo largely through the key journals Quanderni Rossi and Classe Operaia and a handful of major thinkers – Negri, Panzieri, Tronti, Alquati, Bologna, et, al. Rather, The Weight of the Printed Word broadly contours the proliferation of cultures of resistance, all those minor histories within the Minor History proper. The media forms which serve as protagonists are not the major journal, essay and the book but rather the sundry periodicals of factions large and small through which the life-work of militants was defined and refracted. Included as well are the pamphlets, posters and broadsheets that required another form of production and literacy, stretching the analysis of operaismo through the joyous bombast of the manifesto form and the aesthetics of the propaganda poster: the the volantone, large-format pamphlets included as inserts in other periodicals often meant to be read publicly; the manifesti,large sensationalist posters plastered in the piazzi and on public buildings; the “dazibao” a transliteration of the Mandarin character for newspaper, adapted by groups enamored of the Chinese Revolution and used to great effect in public denunciations; as well as the pirate radio amongst the plethora of subordinate media forms including the internal correspondence and communications of secretive, and often illicit, branches of official groups. Due to the ephemeral nature of the media considered, this work also bears a different relation to the trauma of the extra-parliamentary left’s subsequent repression.

Wright’s title comes from a line of a poem by Mayakovsky quoted in the inaugural issue of La Classe, an early operaist journal, expressing conviction in the power of communist discourse against militarist violence. The operaisti may have shared a common conviction in “the weight of the printed word” as a tool, however insufficient, to combat state and right-wing violence, but the archive of this resistance would prove quite fragile. Following passage of the Moro Laws in 1979 which criminalized possession and production of print materials by groups of the Italian extra-parliamentary left, contemporaneous accounts described bonfires of movement publications across the country as militants frantically dispossessed themselves of incriminating material. Possessions of such could carry the possibility of decades imprisonment and/or torture.3 The protagonist of Nanni Balestrini’s novel The Unseen (Gli Invisibili) remembers the destruction of his own archive as 

all the newspapers all the magazines all the leaflets all the documents all the posters all the publications of the movement destroyed vanished all bundled in cardboard boxes and plastic rubbish bags and burned or thrown on rubbish heaps tons of printed matter the written history of the movement its memory dumped among refuse consigned to the flames through a fear of repression a fear well justified because all it took then was a leaflet found in a search to put you in prison for a year or two…4

To this day, one encounters a kind of gallows humor amongst older former members of groups of the extra-parliamentary left. I was privileged to do my own research in archives of the Veneto region in recent years – research which benefited greatly from reading drafts of Wright’s work. When I would earnestly inquire of elderly activists about the best archives to visit I often received some version of the witty retort that I “check at the police stations… ” The main archive of Lotta Femminista, the feminist collective most closely associated with operaismo in the Veneto region whose work is discussed in Wright’s final chapter, was hidden for years in a farmhouse on the outskirts of Padova. While I worked with Mariarosa Dalla Costa, a founder of the movement, to prepare her archive for online publication, she frequently joked that if I made any mistake in obtaining proper copyright permissions, I would succeed where the Italian state had long failed – in sending her to jail.

In a culture as deeply Catholic as that of Italy, the term pentiti (“penitents”) was used to describe those who renounced their former political affiliations under threat of prison, torture and the menacing of family and friends and provided testimony to police in the crackdown. Wright’s introduction considers whether or not such testimony as well as those who dissociated themselves with the tradition (disassociati) might be granted credence, given that, in the case of the pentiti at least it was essentially a history obtained under forms of psychic and/or physical torture.5 More broadly speaking the mass media discourse and official party lines were, and often continue to be, ones of condemning the movements as, at best, the delusions of youthful liberationist ideologues wedded to a long-passé notion of class struggle and, at worst, simply characterizing them as terrorism. On the other hand, one finds the tradition hailed in certain circles as the sine qua non for any reinvigoration of left politics beyond the horizon of the state form. As with Storming Heaven, what will doubtless make The Weight of the Printed Word a crucial resource for radical research in the present is its rigorous refusal to reconcile fundamental antagonisms of the political and intellectual history it reconstructs. In other words, it presents its history as involved in the lived contradictions of the present. These contradictions are given greater nuance and texture in that they are explored through the processes of media production and distribution so essential to the day-to-day reproduction of militants.

Media Against the Division of Labor

There were certain fundamental divisions of labor that the operaisti attempted to disrupt from the very get-go, particularly the division between mental and manual labor, terms which were to be understood not as reified metaphysical categories but as distressed and animated by forms of militant media production. Indeed, “media” and “militant” become co-defining appellations throughout the book, doubtless an approach that will render this history more pertinent today in an era of accelerated mass-media framing of social movements and the sometimes dystopian collapse of any distinction between media usage, and political antagonism or engagement. Wright attempts to define a kind of left media ecology as it developed within Italian extra-parliamentary movements of the 1960s and 70s. In their practices of controinformazione such movements would attempt to develop an alternative to the consolidation of mass media and the cybernetic dream of efficient world-capitalist administration developing throughout these decades.

Thus, although the specific history of the Italian extra-parliamentary left frames the work, the introductory sections develop an argument that could be considered in its own right as a significant contribution to a theory of the relation between media form and political militancy. Here the work joins a small company of historical-theoretical accounts that attempt to elucidate relations between radical politics and cultures of intensive print media production. Obvious comparisons might be made to Smoking Typewriters, John Macmillian’s engaging account of the print cultures in New Left which covers roughly the same historical period in an American context.6 As Todd Gitlin famously claimed, the combination of selective media framing and facile characterization of the overlapping social movements of the 1960s and 70s in the U.S. context, from Civil Rights to Black Power to the New Left, feminist and Gay Liberation movements, act as an alibi for addressing the politics of the present. The same might be said without too much qualification of the histories of the Italian extra-parliamentary left and their latter-day reception.7  

Nicholas Thoburn’s analysis of avant-garde textual production is another clear reference point; attempts to transform the written word from a form of Ur-commodity or what Deleuze and Guattari would call the “root book” into an experimental field of political engagement.8 As Thoburn elegantly glosses the concept, the “root-book” constitutes a kind of “imitative image of nature” and thus “presides, through the law of reflection, over the split between book and world. Severed from the world and, as such, pristine in its spiritual autonomy, the book is also a vector of authority…”9 Did operaismo have such a root book with which to engage and against which to react? Certainly Italy in the 1960s had its fair share of Maoist factions quoting chapter and verse of the Little Red Book and the mainstream political parties, and some factions of autonomia, certainly preserved a kind of Leninist vanguard orthodoxy although such were very much inflected by the complexities of a Cold War balance of power. But, it is somewhat doubtful whether operaismo had any root books in the proper sense, or even journals and essays for that matter as concerned as it was with the critique of capitalist sociality as constituted by divisions of labor. Even Alfred Sohn-Rethel, whose classic work Intellectual and Manual Labor was translated into Italian in 1977, was claimed as somewhat old hat by Constanzo Preve in a review from Lotta Continua in 1977:

…the fact remains that the recent creaking of the social system, the students’ insubordination, the workers’ absenteeism….right up to the most recent events in China have returned us to Marx’s theses on the antagonistic character of the contradiction between manual and intellectual labor, and to the servile subordination of individuals to the division of labor….Sohn-Rethel’s book has thus become mythical (almost exclusively for its title alone) long before being laudably translated into Italian.… “Whoever has money in their pockets has well-determined conceptual abstractions in their heads, consciously or otherwise” says Sohn Rethel, and he isn’t joking. Thus even if it is only a casual statement, the bourgeoisie are not wrong when, seeing young people engaging in auto-reduction or going to the supermarkets without paying for things, say that they “aren’t thinking properly”: perhaps they aren’t, but they are acting in line with the most recent German philosophy.10

A compelling claim for a “foundational text” can of course be made for Mario Tronti’s classic Operai e Capitale, whose profoundly belated translation into English, over half a century after its original publication in 1966 was only remedied in 2019 by David Broder’s excellent rendering.11 The chapter within the work that might be considered a primary candidate for “Ur text” of operaismo is the classic essay “A New Type of Political Experiment: Lenin in England” originally published in the first issue of Classe Operaia in 1964. Here Tronti calls for nothing less than the rediscovery of the priority of working-class resistance over capitalist innovation through a reinvention of the Leninist ideal of the newspaper as an organizing form. It is hard to describe this as a root text however in any strict sense given that it is simultaneously quite reflexive about the problems and deficiencies of previous attempts to represent working-class revolts and proposes a form of participatory media engagement that would undercut its own textual sanctity. It is also largely framed through its own founding  interrogative:

Capital has its history, and its historians write it – but who is going to write the history of the working class? Capitalist exploitation can impose its political domination through a hundred and one different forms – but how are we going to sort out the form that will be taken by the future dictatorship of the workers organised as the ruling class?12

This lack of a root book against which to define the media practice of operaismo is made an asset by Wright in his capacity to avoid the pitfalls of either fully conflating forms of media production and consumption with political practice or of representing this relation as an arbitrary one. This sobriety of approach is particularly notable given that the legacies of operaismo and autonomia, particularly as they have filtered to an English readership, are rife with expressions of both tech utopia and apocalypse; arguments in which the question of technology, techne in the broad sense of a doing and a making, is made subservient to use of advanced communications technologies. The projection of a political subject resulting from such a fusion, whether such is considered more liberated or better enslaved, is one whose political capacities filter primarily through the technology at hand: the communications worker of Maurizio Lazzarato’s “immaterial labor,” Hardt and Negri’s internet-savvy multitude, Franco Berardi’s claim for a voice of communal desire speaking through Radio Alice, etc.

Politics of the Mediasphere

Grand theories relating media and politics certainly do make an appearance in Wright’s work but they are used more as guideposts than they are swallowed as red pills enabling a revelatory hermeneutics. Wright invokes the provocative and rather despairing claim of Regis Debray that the life-cycle of the socialist project has corresponded with the advent and obsolescence of the print-daily.13 As Lenin had famously claimed, the newspaper was a collective propagandist, agitator and organizer, the “scaffolding” required in his architectural metaphor to coordinate various factions within the party form.14  Thus, for Debray, the two enter a kind of suicide pact with the obsolescence of each sounding the other’s death knell. But, when it comes to forms of anti-systemic movement that, however imbricated in legacies of preceding party and union structures and their media forms sought to challenge and remake them, Debray’s argument loses its foothold. The same might be said for Debray’s reliance on a conception of hegemony rooted in the vanguardist guerilla warfare of historical third worldism.15

Debray is something of a McLuhanesque technological determinist, not in the haptic sense in which media becomes the “extensions of man,” but in his claim that specific media technologies structure a whole tradition of political intervention – what Debray broadly refers to as the “socialist tradition.” Debray’s exemplar of the socialist ideal is the 19th-century printmaker, the “man” who stood stalwart and turned the wheels of the great lithographic, intaglio and letterpress technologies, literally turning out the dailies, broadsheets and pamphlets of the movement. He was both manual laborer, typesetter, publisher, editor and intellectual; the agent through which a whole political tradition flowed. At times Debray’s account seems highly reductive. For example he would claim Trotsky as solely a “man of the text” when the latter definitively proclaimed that the cinema would be the new revolutionary medium par excellence, replacing both vodka and the church in the lives of the proletariat.16 Even Debray’s frequently invoked examples in a Caribbean and Latin American revolutionary context from Castro to Che to Chavez, relied as much, or more, on the media of television and radio as on any simple patriarchal authority with which they commanded the printed and spoken word.

Still, Debray’s argument that the rise of a hyper-concentrated electronic mass-media apparatus circumscribed the access of radicals to communications technologies in the latter half of the twentieth century is doubtlessly true.17 His contention that the material forms through which ideas are transmitted have a social being and constitute a “mediasphere” whose development is subject to periodization in relation to shifting modes of production is also undeniable – if so prosaic as to be unremarkable.

However, Debray’s basic formula in which the print daily and the vanguard party form obsolesce together with the rise of electronic mass media, is of only limited use in discussing the Italian extra-parliamentary left. For one, the central analytic methodology of operaismo, the inchiesta operaia was born, in part through attempts to chart the relations of a new class of technocratic white-collar workers, as in Alquati’s studies of the Olivetti factory, a basis for subsequent Marxian analysis of cybernetic production flows.18 Class composition and decomposition were concepts developed not so much to mirror the future unity of the proletariat as to chart its antagonisms, foibles and potential. The great slogans of operaismo may have been those of unity as in the classic slogan “operai e studenti uniti nella lotta,” yet the focus of the analysis was always on working with and through divisions of labor. This translation between slogan and analysis, calls for unity and practices of working with disunity, at their best, remained mutually constitutive within the tradition. 

Still, the culture of the printed daily remained paramount in the life-worlds of the operaisti and often the processes of production and distribution of the form would come to be at odds with its intended politics. As Wright accounts throughout the work, tensions would persist between the discourse of the operaisti lauding the practice of conricerca and inchiesta operaia as a fundamental challenge to existing divisions of labor and the relatively static and hierarchical relations that structured the groups themselves. Perhaps nowhere was this tension more evident than in the process of composing movement media. Prominent figures to emerge from the tradition, rightly admired as foundational for radical political theory of the present (Antonio Negri, Maurizio Lazzarato, Mario Tronti, etc. ) by and large developed their work in tightly knit groups, generally composed of a small number of men whose political perspectives others were meant to translate into practice (although things changed with the advent of the feminist movement and various groups of autonomia). Surrounding such vanguard cadres was a ceto politico (roughly “political substratum”) composed of those whose role was to engage directly in (unequal) debate with the central group, occasionally contributing to publications, and serving as conduits to a ceto operaio.  This third tier was composed of the workers and students who actively read the newspapers and pamphlets the group disseminated and could be said to constitute the active force responsible for both realizing and informing the political intentions of its discourse. Both Wright’s introduction and the final chapter on the feminist group Lotta Femminista, give detailed accounts of the ways women were consistently marginalized in such organizations, commonly referred to as angeli del ciclostile. A misogynist proto-cyborg diminutive, the term roughly translated as “angels of the copy machine” and offered a vision of women as angelic machine-worker hybrids toiling tirelessly at the mimeograph machines and flyering outside the factory gates to produce and distribute the flyers authored by a core male membership. 19

However, these hierarchies were never stable, nor were their antagonisms and tensions ever rendered invisible – at least not for long. The Weight of the Printed Word presents in rich detail the various groups’ “failures” to mask their internal and internecine antagonisms in the presentation of a united front; this being perhaps a primary reason for the continued fascination they exert on a left political imaginary today. Wright takes up a question so basic that it is too-often disavowed or ignored in studies of social movement formation: What in fact is a “militant”? The designation was hotly contested particularly within the ceto operaio of various groups in which direct participation in struggles, in both the industrial and social factories, was formative of the political subjectivity for many and related at times only tenuously and uneasily with the life experience and discourse of a ceto politico tied as the latter was to a vanguardist discourse and theory. Lotta Femmnista would parody the militant figures of Autonomia in one of its final publications, describing them as “Indians in the piazzi, cowboys in the bedroom, and sheriffs in the assembly.”20 The designation was a combined insult of the brown face performances of the Indiani Metropolitani, the autonomist faction that dawned garb parodying the representations of indigenous peoples in American and Spaghetti-Western films in its street actions, with a generalized misogynist behaviour in both intimate relations and the communal politics of the assemblies.

Cartoons depicting the groups of autonomia as “Indians in the piazzi, cowboys in the bed and sheriffs in the assembly” from Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Silvia Federici and Leopoldina Fortunati, et. al. “Mille fiori sbocciano appassiti.” Le operaie della casa. Numero speciale/documento. Aprile 1977. Collection Silvia Federici Archives. Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women.
Cartoons depicting the groups of autonomia as “Indians in the piazzi, cowboys in the bed and sheriffs in the assembly” from Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Silvia Federici and Leopoldina Fortunati, et. al. “Mille fiori sbocciano appassiti.” Le operaie della casa. Numero speciale/documento. Aprile 1977. Collection Silvia Federici Archives. Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women.

Such tensions and contradictions are endemic and will come as no surprise to anyone with any experience and knowledge of left politics or history; however, what makes Wright’s account unique are the various ways in which it describes such conflict as inextricable from media production and consumption.

In a sense such conflict plays itself out in questions of the style utilized in movement texts central to operaismo. For example there is a significant difference in mode of address, one hotly contested at the time, between the rather grand and wooden prose style of early texts of Antonio Negri (decades before collaboration with Michael Hardt added great stylistic elegance to their collaborative works in English ) and the comparatively direct and polemical approach proudly claimed by authors such as Luciano Ferrari Bravo or Mariarosa Dalla Costa, whose work on immigration and multinational capital formed an essential complement to Negri’s original interventions. These questions of style within the essay and book form, and indeed a profound questioning of the theoretical and political efficacy of such forms themselves, related to the complex ways in which media production was understood within operaist and subsequent autonomist groups.21 If the essay form was the basis of the major journals of operaismo (Quaderni Rossi and the subsequent split of core members in the formation of Classe Operaia) its preeminent status was subsequently thrown into some tumult by the production of pamphlets and flyers whose ambiguity of authorship and address could be only uneasily incorporated in an official program of centralized theoretical production.

Militant Media Misuse

Much of what makes Wright’s historical account particularly enjoyable is its attention to the lives of militant texts in excess of any straightforward use in agitation and propaganda. This “misuse” of texts beyond their declared purpose comes to be as much the focus of Wright’s study as any programmatic political project that might structure their deployment. We read, for example, of (unsuccessful) attempts at seduction using the more florid passages of Tronti’s Workers and Capital by a hapless young militant convinced of their aphrodisiac power.22  Through such anecdotes, Wright outlines ways in which the bluntly-instrumental view many of the operaisti held of theoretical and textual production as a weapon of direct class struggle, such as Tronti’s infamous claim that a book should be written only with the awareness of “committing a bad deed” and viewed as a kind of theft of weapons from the “bosses’ arsenals,” consistently found itself running aground against the bodily enjoyment and sheer conflictual excitement such texts and their distribution generated.23

Romano Alquati, whose early studies of the Fiat and Olivetti factories were foundational to the development of workers inquiry, would later insist on the non-traditional nature of his texts, describing them as macchinetta or “little machines.” This term, no doubt a nod to Deleuze and Guattari’s machinic-theoretical poetics, was also broadly applicable to devices as diverse as small cars, stove-top coffee makers and vending machines. In a discussion of the radical sociologist Danilo Montaldi, whose works remain untranslated in English to this day but were foundational to inchiesta operaia, Wright points out that Montaldi’s process of understanding “grassroots militants” (militanti politici di base) included not only direct interviews, co-authored accounts and statistical analysis but also a creative misuse of official documents. The initial “autobiographical” account of militant life in his classic work Militanti politici di base for example is composed entirely of the police records of the surveillance of a young proletarian militant of the Po Valley Carlo Buzzuffi throughout the period of fascist rule.24 This approach of viewing the militant through the eyes of a repressive state bureaucracy also represents in extremis for Wright the necessarily partial and ideologically charged nature of any attempt to represent militant political struggle. In resistance to such techniques of surveillance and the crisis of representation in both the political and aesthetic sense, montage and fragmentation came to proliferate with the dissolution of Potere Operaio and the advent of Autonomia in the mid-1970s. 

Such an assemblage of (anti) representational and ideologically impure approaches to political representation poses certain problems for any latter-day account. In deference to this archive Wright eschews the more linear reconstruction of intellectual history that characterized Storming Heaven.As he points out in one of the more caustic passages of the book, “judging” the archives of operaismo and autonomia through close-reading of its texts was a practice most prominently utilized by the prosecutors and judges of the Italian State who, following passage of the Moro Laws in 1978, combed through archives of defendants, often, as in Antonio Negri’s case, returning to their work from decades previous to trump up charges of instigating violence. As opposed to attempting any historical overview that would judge their “success” or “failure,” Wright approaches the archive obliquely. Here he draws on Massimiliano Tomba’s anti-historicist view of history writing as a site of contention in which repressed histories persist like so many strata of sedimentation in rock likely to reappear in the upheavals of the present.25

In effect Wright attempts to structure his book in a fashion attentive to the insurgent temporalities of its subject and, for the most part, succeeds brilliantly or at least as much as “successful” representation of operaismo and its legacies can be considered a goal. While the book does offer a general schema of the transition between the development of operaismo, subsequent factions of autonomia, their catastrophic defeat and latter-day legacies, this trajectory is punctuated by carefully placed thematic repetitions, interludes and digressions to analyse media forms. The concentration of what might be most explicitly defined as media theory occurs in the opening and closing sections of the work, articulated through considerations of the material body and fundamental volatility of specific texts.  These considerations are elaborated through histories of workplace struggle attending the emergence of operaismo in the great Fiat strikes in Turin and the formation of the student worker coalition in Assemblea operai e studenti. The fourth and fifth sections center more specifically on the history of Potere Operaio, which, before its official dissolution in 1973 (and even long afterward in the perpetuation of many groups that retained its moniker and continued to declare allegiance to the group’s core principles) was the closest that the workerist component of the extra-parliamentary left in this context ever came to a sustained organization. Even within these chapters, which could be regarded as the most straightforward in their account of a specific political organization, we are treated to fascinating interludes and digressions relating to document use in internal group planning and debate around questions of “illegal work” and the tactical intervention performed by media objects into the life-worlds of their addressees.

One example of such a digression, from amongst many that might be cited, is Wright’s account of the volantone, large inserts, included in many of the periodicals affiliated with Potere Operaio.  These broadsheets were meant to be removed from the publication and pasted on walls or read collectively in public space. Their form owed much to the use of “dazibao” a transliteration of the Mandarin character for “newspaper,” adapted by extra-parliamentary groups enamored of the Chinese cultural revolution. While the prototype in the Chinese tradition generally included large hand-painted calligraphic texts, their Italian derivatives were generally type-set and modeled as giant pamphlets that could be read communally. One of the most effective uses of the form was the manifesto “Emigrant Comrades” authored by Ferruccio Gambino, perhaps the member of Potere Operaio most responsible for developing its awareness of capitalist use of immigration policy as well as cultivating interchange between the group and black radical traditions in the United States.26 The text was widely distributed in bus and train stations to target Italian workers returning from “guest worker” programs throughout Europe and urged solidarity among the various ghettoized populations forced to move from formerly colonized and impoverished nations to the major industrial centers of Europe at the whim of governments concerned to repress local struggles by relocating the unemployed. 

Potere Operaio Flyer

“Emigrant Comrades”: The volantone authored by Ferruccio Gambino as an insert in the Potere Operaio journal of April 4th, 1970.27

Readers who do not come to the work with some prior understanding of, and enthusiasm for, the tradition examined may find themselves put off at times by the proliferation of historical detail and anecdote in certain chapters where the intricacies of internecine debate within and between the various groups form the primary object of analysis. Such is likely to be the case with any serious study of a radical social movement still mired in controversy and possessed of a rich document history. However, Wright’s sober and detailed approach has much to recommend it and, as he mentions, for those who would prefer a more dramatic rendering of the document history, such is easily to be found particularly in the classic novel of Nanni Balestrini, Vogliamo tutto, from 1971 which has done as much or more than any scholarly account to popularize the history in question. In addition to being an account of the “sentimental education” of its protagonist into class politics, the work consists, in its latter half, largely in a collage of movement media ephemera, (newspaper articles, meeting transcriptions of Assemblea operai e studenti, speech transcriptions, etc.) which Balestrini would claim as forging a collective biography of the mass worker as a new revolutionary subject. 28

Autonomia and the “New” Revolutionary Subject

The question of the formation of a collective subject and its relation to political structure and media production acquired new urgency in the tumult of the early 1970s as numerous groups emerged variously claiming the moniker of “autonomia.” Wright charts these developments in the final sections of the book and, it can be hoped, his account will do much to help readers avoid use of the term to designate any unified entity – whether for purposes of easy dismissal or celebration. 29 As Wright shows, there exists a great deal of confusion, not all of which can or should be dispelled,  regarding the emergence of autonomia as the term was adopted by or used to describe approximately a dozen groups emerging after the official dissolution of Potere Operaio in 1973. Contributing to such confusion is the fact that movements of autonomia in the early 1970s, emerging in the contexts of specific factory struggles, were often referred to as autonomia organizzata while by the mid to late 1970s the same designation was largely applied to political organizations forming autonomously from confrontations centered on any particular workplace. The latter were also, at times referred to as autonomia diffusa generally indicating their attempts to both refuse or reinvent hierarchical neo-Leninist structures endemic to other factions of the extra-parliamentary left, broaden the sites of struggle throughout the social terrain and imagine new forms of revolutionary subjectivity. Compounding the difficulties with these two basic forms of autonomia are the two poles of the movement best-known to an English language readership: Autonomia armata, which variously intersected with the Brigate Rosse, Nuclei Armati Proletari and other clandestine armed groups; and, autonomia creativa which was the most closely tied with Situationism, anti-psychiatry and the post-structuralism’s of Foucault, Guattari and Deleuze.30

Issue of A/Traverso
Among the most famed examples of autonomia creativa, the issue of A/Traverso from September of 1977 with its cover slogan NON PRENDERE IL POTERE, “Do Not Take Power.“31

Whether organized,  diffuse, creative or otherwise armed there was much continuity between the groups of autonomia and operaismo in terms of certain basic principles: rejection of work as a capitalist ethical imperative, the championing of self-managed struggle as opposed to self-management of any “improved” form of capitalist production and a conception of class-composition as a dynamic process necessarily related to a mobile conception of organization. The  various groups that rallied under the banner of autonomia were not necessarily any less hierarchical in their organizational structures nor more radical in their (anti) representational projects than their predecessors. In fact, in many instances, they experienced the hardening of  pro-work ideology in the face of capitalist flight and the reappearance of a strict neo-Leninist vanguardism and romanticization of military tactics in the face of increased state violence.32

As Wright reminds us, whatever the more-strident insistence such groups made in their claims to autonomy, by the mid-1970s they were generally subject to a brutal counterinsurgency organized at the highest levels of state power. As will be familiar, if still somewhat obscure and hotly contested, to anyone with knowledge of the period, the 1970s saw a multi-faceted crackdown on revolutionary movements globally and Italy was certainly no exception. The “years of lead” (Anni di piombo) beginning with the great strikes in the industrial centers of the north and fascist bombing of Piazza Fontana in the “hot autumn” of 1969-70, initiated a sustained campaign of right-wing terror with left-wing paramilitary and clandestine “parallel organizations” often responding in kind. Although the primary antagonists in such conflicts were small clandestine fascist groups and armed factions of the extra-parliamentary left, the degree to which the former worked in collaboration with a combination of Italian state forces, NATO and the CIA and the latter were infiltrated by the same coalition remains hotly contested and generally indiscernible.

The hostility of segments of the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI) to the extra-parliamentary left has been well documented.  To take a particularly egregious example, the PCI supported the passage of the Reale Law of 1975, which granted police effective immunity in murdering protestors when charged with regulating mass demonstrations. Compounding such overt political repression was the oil crisis of 1973 and the capitalist restructuring designed to undermine the accomplishments won by workers in particular geographies. The capacity of Capital to disinvest from the industrial centers of the north presented militants with the dreaded prospect of “under-development.” As Wright points out, the political climate of extreme repression and capitalist disinvestment would lead, particularly amongst a younger generation of students who had come of age in the midst of these upheavals, to a certain hardened culture of militancy.33

Such a fundamentally paranoid and violent climate did not necessarily encourage creative political experimentation;  however, much to their credit, various factions of autonomia did just that,  managing to experiment with the relation between media production and political organization in original ways. One of the most prevalent media practices affiliated with autonomia, initially formed in relation to the controversy attending the Piazza Fontana bombing, was the practice of controinformazione, a collective practice of investigative journalism designed to counter mass-media and governmental narratives. Collaboratively founded in 1973 by members of various factions of autonomia, the Brigate Rosse, and other groups, the eponymously named journal Controinformazione was one of the more long-lived and visually and theoretically cacophonous to emerge from the tradition of autonomia. Its fellow publication Rosso, was the most distributed of the journals affiliated with the movement and perhaps the only that could legitimately claim national reach.34 Both reveled in a certain aesthetic and ideological promiscuity and, in their heydays, cast themselves less as instruments of vanguard discursive formation and more as a vehicle of collective organization; a service structure attentive to new social movement forces. As the editors of Rosso put it in their first issue “there is no copyright on autonomy and estrangement.”35

Perhaps the journal best known in an English-speaking context for its coupling of aesthetic and political experimentation was A/Traverso, the journal founded by Franco Berardi “Bifo” in 1975 and closely associated with Radio Alice in Rome. As Wright documents in the final section of the work, this was one amongst a number of important print publications to emerge from autonomia that were closely affiliated with the blossoming of pirate radio in the late 1970s. Pirate radio constituted, for a brief few years, a powerful means of generating counter-public spheres in a fashion that print media alone could not necessarily achieve. The different forms of literacy and technical know-how required of radio programming were not necessarily more radical in terms of democracy of access, formal invention or political content than their counterparts in print production. They did, however, contribute to the creative attempts of autonomist groups to organize in the absence of a traditional centralized vanguard core with its attendant ceto politico and continue to inform discussions of the (im)possibilities of “leaderless” organization. Radio at times provided a unique venue for such organizing, often cast in a parodic register, as when Radio Alice broadcast secretly-recorded phone conversations with mainstream politicians, recording their scorn for the proletariat, or when autonomist feminists running the late-night broadcasts of Onda Rossa would offer fake relationship advice shows, enticing unwitting men into receiving very bizarre guidance for how to deal with their wives and girlfriends.36

By the late 1970s a fundamentally insurmountable challenge was clear for those groups identified with new forms of autonomia and legacies of operaismo: that of continuing to create counter-publics in the face of intensified state violence and, following the wave of arrests precipitated by passage of the Moro Laws on April 7th 1979, the imprisonment or exile of key protagonists. The final section of Wright’s book gives a great overview of both the vicious in-fighting that such a situation invariably provoked as well as the tremendous flowering of textual production that makes the period from 1977 onward in Italy an unexpected apogee of political discourse, rich in resources for any contemporary politics. A great deal of credit for such a flowering should be given to the infrastructure of publishing houses, print shops, bookshops and autonomist squats that established themselves as clearinghouses for the production, distribution and discussion of these publications. Figures who will be relatively unknown to an English readership such as Augusto Finzi and Primo Moroni, emerge as key protagonists in this context whose brilliance found its greatest satisfaction in distributing and collecting materials as their surviving archives attest.37 Moroni, who with Nanni Balestrini collected the classic material history of the Italian left in L’orda d’oro (The Golden Horde) with the awareness that the archive was being actively destroyed, was charmingly circumspect in the assessment of his own role. He admitted that “everyone thought that I was very intelligent because I knew a ton of things” while claiming that he was “simply the collector of more than two hundred intelligences that frequented the bookshop…. I knew more, but only because there were many separate things that I continued to elaborate along common coordinates.”38

Poster created by Salario per il lavoro domestico groups circa 1975
“Di chi è la pancia di questa donna?” Poster created by Salario per il lavoro domestico groups circa 1975 for protests for abortion and against unpaid domestic labor in the Mestre region.39

The final chapter in Wright’s work focuses on Lotta Femminista, the major feminist movement to develop in relation to operaismo and autonomia in the Triveneto region in the early 1970s, a group that would form one of the bases for the subsequent Salario per il Lavoro Domestico  (“Wages for Housework”) movement internationally. The choice of Lotta Femminista  as the final case study of the book is an important one. The group represents the tendency within 1970s Italian feminism to emerge most directly in relation to operaismo and autonomia groups, many of the original founders having left these organizations through some combination of frustration and disgust at their structural misogyny and the enticements of the new formations of Italian feminist collectivity post-68.40 Although the group was deeply embedded in this particular historical and geographical context, the collective productions and subsequent works of those affiliated with the movement would also prove to have a lasting influence on debates over the value of reproductive labor and the potential politics of its refusal and reorganization. Lotta Femminsita was also the segment of the feminist movement to articulate what was perhaps the most thorough-going and hard-hitting critique of their comrades in the various groups of autonomia for their reactionary return to a politics of austerity, strict vanguardist structure and a demand for collective labor that neglected and erased the existing disparities of gendered labor within the family that permeated global-capitalist social relations.41 Thus Lotta Femminista stands at the book’s conclusion to indicate not only the omissions and oversights in the projects of operaismo and autonomia, it addresses but also its unrecognized potential and all the unreconciled debates implicit and explicit within the movement that variously inform and torment the politics of the present.  Although the book makes no such grandiose claims about its own project, Wright does succeed in presenting these movement archives both carefully situated in historical context and out of time in their provocations for the present.

One can hope that Wright’s work will find a wide readership across disciplinary boundaries of all sorts.42 There is a sense in which the book is most obviously useful simply for its presentation of a detailed and eclectic history, one that has heretofore been visible only through a glass darkly for an English language readership. There is plenty of scrupulous research to be found in every chapter and, in its recent publication, it is fortunate to be joined by the extremely belated translations of some of the most important works of the operaismo tradition which, whether through benign neglect or active repression, have largely remained unavailable to a wide English language readership. 

In addition to this general rectificatory function, the work contributes greatly to any project of thinking through the relation between media’s production and consumption and political formation. Wright’s work shows the living potential of the operaismosarchives and legacies in our era of accelerated politics overdetermined by mass media and the apparent folding of oppositional political practice into pure media spectacle. One obvious lesson is thus not to confuse political possibility with media saturation and ceaseless engagement. Any theory of the “mediasphere” as the extension of “man” must be attenuated by an analysis of how media illuminates social division itself and points to other sites of politics. Whatever their faults and limitations, the operaisti certainly began to engage in such a process. At the same time, in an era in which practices of controinformazione are largely conflated with conspiracy theories and right-wing hatemongering, it is instructive to revisit a popular tradition in which a distrust of mainstream media and enjoyment in its popular subversion took a radically progressive form. In providing a history and theory of a disruptive media politics, Wright’s work can be considered a contribution not only to all those various forms of archival study often categorized in an academic context as communications studies, library studies, digital humanities, etc., but to their uneasy participation in the inchiesta operaia of the present.

Appendix: On the English Reception and Translation of Operaismo

What follows is a mini-history of this process focused on the publications of movement journals in the United States and Great Britain from the late 1960s through the early 1980s. Whenever possible the account links to original documents, largely scanned from archives of Harry Cleaver, Silvia Federici and Mariarosa Dalla Costa as well as the archives of Radical America at Brown University and, the latter of which was based originally around the archives of the Red Notes Collective in London. Although it is a cursory overview, hopefully it gives some sense of the interface between radical movements in the US and Italy at the time. Special thanks to Harry Cleaver, Peter Linebaugh, Stevphen Shukaitis and Jim Fleming for discussing this “minor history.”

In its heyday, throughout the 60s and 70s, both commentary on and translation of the Italian extra-parliamentary left in English was relatively scarce although a remarkable array of small radical publications carried important texts which helped to cross-pollinate operaismo and its successor movements with groups in the United States, particularly radicalism in the Detroit area. The C.L.R. James’ circle around Facing Reality in Detroit and London contributed to some of the earliest translations. In particular, the coordinated efforts of Martin Glaberman and George Rawick in Detroit with Ferruccio Gambino, a professor at University of Padova and a kind of unofficial American liaison of Potere Operaio would result in a remarkable sharing and mutual translation of texts between movements including the Italian translation of James’s classic The Black Jacobins (I giacobini neri. La prima rivolta contro l’uomo bianco) by Feltrinelli in 1969. Speak Out, the journal of Facing Reality published in Detroit carried coverage of automotive strikes at Fiat as early as an issue from March of 1969. Although the great wave of strike actions in the industrial north of the country in the Autunno Caldo of 1969–70 attracted relatively little attention in the mainstream English-language press, chronicles written by Dan Georgakas appeared in the journal of the Liverpool based Socialist-Feminist collective Big Flame along with firsthand accounts from local press and workerist collectives. Much of this was republished in Radical America , vol. 5. No. 5. Sept-Oct. 1971.

As with the English-language distribution of many of the defining texts of the global extra-parliamentary left in the late 60s and early 70s, Radical America played a decisive role. The journal, which emerged from the campus-based politics of SDS, was founded by Paul and Mary-Jo Buhle at the University of Wisconsin in the fall of 1967 and soon developed, beyond the purview of SDS, into a project of providing a platform for movements globally. In 1973, they would publish an overview of Italian extra-parliamentary movements (Radical America vol 7. No. 2 “Working Class Struggles in Italy” March-April 1973). An important role was played in composing this issue by Silvia Federici and Mario Montano as well as Bruno and Judy Ramirez

Federici herself had begun her graduate studies at the University of Buffalo in 1968 and became a member of the editorial collective of Telos, perhaps the leading English-language journal of the time attempting a synthesis of phenomenology and Marxism and attentive to key works of the Frankfurt School and Italian extra-parliamentary left before their widespread English-language diffusion. Federici worked on organizing the conference sponsored by Telos in 1970 in Ontario, which would bring together an array of prominent intellectuals associated with the “New Left.” This would be Federici’s first meeting with Montano who introduced her to theorists of operaismo. The two would author what was perhaps the first significant English language translation and introduction to Tronti written under the pseudonym Guido Baldi in Radical America vol. 6 no. 3, May-June, 1972. Shortly thereafter, Telos would publish selections from Mario Tronti’s Workers and Capital (Telos 14, Winter 1972) and Sergio Bologna’s “Class Composition and the Theory of the Party at the Origin of the Counsilist Movement” (Telos 13, Fall 1972). The Conference of Socialist Economists in London would later include these texts as well as important works of the great radical sociologist of workers’ inquiry Romano Alquati and the theorist who would deeply inform the thinking of the operaisti in regards to the division between intellectual and manual labor, Alfred Sohn-Rethel in their first pamphlet of 1976.

Perhaps most important for Federici’s own development as a feminist Montano introduced her to the works of Mariarosa Dalla Costa who was then at work on drafts of Potere femminile e sovversione sociale, later published in English translation with Selma James as The Power of Women and Subversion of the Community. The Zerowork Collective and Wages for Housework (WfH) movement would also be essential in bringing the history of these particular struggles to a North American context. The Wages for Housework groups in Toronto and New York published accounts of the actions of Lotta Femminista and the Salario per il lavoro domestico groups as early as this pamphlet from 1975 and periodic reports on the Italian feminist movement appeared in the group’s journal out of London Power of Women. The small Bristol-based publisher Falling Wall Press, run largely through the tireless efforts of Suzie Fleming and Jeremy Mulford, played a central role. In addition to publishing the main WfH journals, the press released many of the classic essays of the movement in pamphlet form. Falling Wall also established its own review. The fifth issue, of this publication is notable in that it addresses the concept of the “social factory” popularized in the discourse of operaismo but emphasizes struggles of Blacks in the United States, England and the West Indies. Amongst its gems are a series of short reviews: Ferruccio Gambino on the recent re-release of DuBois’ Black Reconstruction; Bruno Ramirez on a pamphlet published by the editors of the Race Today on the racism inherent in discourse around ‘mugging’ in the English context, and an analysis of the relation between ‘crime’ and class struggle; and, a review of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye published by Margaret Prescod and Wilmette Brown the co founders of Black Women for Wages for Housework.

In the United States, the Zerowork collective included in its first issue considerations of the relation between struggles in the United States and Italy, particularly in the essay by Bruno Ramirez discussing practices of autoriduzione amongst the Italian proletariat against price increases. Linebaugh recalls, however, that his view at the time as an organizer of the issue was to resist becoming merely a theoretical import of Italian operaismo and to focus on the creative power of many of the radical movements of the marginalized, ranging from Black autoworkers in Detroit, anti-colonial movements in Vietnam, Africa and Latin America that had been such an influence on operaismo in the first place. Zerowork 1 had been preceded by a political gathering in Franconia, N.H., called playfully “The Bolshevik Bandit Conference” which introduced people with experience of the Italian movement (Paolo Carpignano, Mario Montano, Federici, and Ramirez) to prison abolitionists and educators active in the New England area, though the group did not persist long enough to develop these potential collaborations thoroughly.  Linebaugh charts these relations in a fascinating talk at MayDay Rooms in London from 2013.

For a history of Zerowork and affiliated movements see the website of Harry Cleaver who has scrupulously documented the group as part of his broader project of identifying a ‘red thread’ running through many movements of Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa in terms of autonomous Marxism. Cleaver would make his own pilgrimage to Italy in 1978 while he was working on drafts of his classic work Reading Capital Politically.  Asked to describe the trip in a recent conversation he simply said, “Yeah, I needed to go to see if the stories were true.” Cleaver said that he knew of the movements only indirectly at the time through contact with members of the Wages for Housework movement and Zerowork as well as the translations published early out of England from the Red Notes and Bigflame groups.

The Red Notes collective in England published remarkable collections of original texts from the Italian extra-parliamentary left in the 1970s and 80s, the works of Antonio Negri in particular, largely thanks to the efforts of Ed Emery, the great ethnomusicologist/radical as well as John Merrington, the historian who would do much to bring the work of Alquati and Tronti on class composition to an English-speaking public. Emery’s own account of the history of Red Notes and his translation projects, although stated with a great deal of modesty and humor, gives a sense of his importance. See for example the Red Notes pamphlet from May 1978, Italy 1977-78Living With an Earthquakeand Peter Linebaugh’s eulogy for Merrington which gives something of a sense of the latter’s importance in the complex politics of the moment. Linebaugh credits his own development of the account of wage relations as a means of working-class composition and decomposition, and the criminalization of custom in The London Hanged as influenced, in part, by a reception of operaismo.

Of course things changed profoundly after 1979 and, ironically, the violence of the government crackdown and international support for an imprisoned and exiled community is much of the reason for the relative notoriety of the tradition and its key figures today. The Committee Against Repression in Italy (CARI) spearheaded by Silvia Federici and George Caffentzis from New York and working in collaboration with Gambino and Glaberman amongst others, did a valiant job attempting to arrange awareness of the repression of the Italian extra-parliamentary left within the US left following the crackdown in 1979, including publishing a series of newsletters, raising money for refugees of the repression and orchestrating plans to discredit a key witness in Negri’s trial in collaboration with a radical community in Detroit. For a sense of the climate of the time and the general ambivalence of an English speaking Marxist intellectual elite to the Italian extra-parliamentary left, see Linebaugh’s impassioned plea in a letter to EP Thompson imploring the latter to sign on to the petition for Negri and other imprisoned operaisti and autonomists in the years following the crackdowns. The Semiotext(e) issue on autonomia published in 1980, distributed by MIT press in a new edition of 2007 has become something of a classic and was originally composed, based in large part on Sylvère Lotringer’s travels to Rome and Bologna in 1979 as the persecution of militants was reaching an apex.

Prominent figures of the French post-structuralist left, notably Felix Guattari, would help in enabling the exodus and subsequent notoriety of various figures involved in operaismo and autonomia. Take for example the remarkable outpouring of support for those arrested on April 7th, 1979 as expressed in the second issue of the journal Sette Aprile including contributions by Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari amongst many others. Autonomedia would publish translations of Negri’s lectures delivered in Negri’s brief sojourn in France in which he took over Althusser’s lectures at the École Normale Supérieure between 1977-1978 as Marx Beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse in 1991. In a bibliographic addendum to the book Harry Cleaver and Jim Fleming would attempt to compile a list in both English and Italian of the existing literature of the tradition.

This quick summary can indicate only the contours of the initial reception of operaismo and its legacies in English. Subsequent publication projects by Autonomedia, Semiotext(e) and Pluto Press amongst others would define and transform the reception of the tradition in the following decades. Hopefully this mini history of movement publications however helps to explain how a scholar like Steve Wright, as a young radical and aspiring labor historian in Melbourne Australia in the early 1980s, could have come to engage the tradition with such rigor.


1 Steve Wright, Storming Heaven, 2nd ed. (London: Pluto, 2017 [2002]).
2 See appendix.
3 See Christian Marazzi and Sylvere Lotringer “Introduction. The Return of Politics” in Marazzi and Lottringer eds. Autonomia. A Post-political Politics, (Los Angeles and Cambridge: Semiotexte/MIT Press, 2007), 10–11.
4 Nanni Balestrini, The Unseen, ( London: Verso, 2012), 87 quoted in Wright, The Weight of the Printed Word, 35.
5 Technically, the term disassociati  was used to designate those who renounced armed struggle, although there was much subsequent debate as to how such a renunciation related to a broader disillusionment with revolutionary politics. Primo Moroni, for example, would claim the pentiti as the real disassociati and the latter as simply “turncoats.” As Moroni phrased it, “For a long time there was a linguistic problem. We had always said that the pentito in reality did not exist: the true pentito for us was the dissociato, who, faced with the State, recognised that they had been mistaken and sought a reduction in sentence by virtue of the fact that they had renounced their own identity and past history.”

Many thanks to Steve Wright for clarifying this distinction in correspondence and pointing me to the essay of Moroni’s quoted above. See Primo Moroni, “Ma l’amor mio non muore” in Romano Giuffrida and Marco De Filippi eds., Maledetti compagni, vi amerò. La sinistra antagonista nelle parole dei protagonisti degli ultimi vent’anni di conflitto, (Roma, Datanews),15-44. For a detailed discussion of the use of the terms in debates of the 80s and early 90s in relation to Italian law and prison support for the incarcerated see Steve Wright,“Cattivi Maestri: Some reflections on the legacy of Guido Bianchini, Luciano Ferrari Bravo, and Primo Moroni” in P. Lamarche, M. Rosenkrantz, & D. Sherman eds., Reading Negri: Marxism in the Age of Empire (Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 2011), 21–56.

There is much interesting controversy over what use should be made of the oral histories of the pentiti given that they are essentially some form of forced confession under threat of violence. Claudio Del Bello in his collection of oral histories has argued that they should be excluded altogether while Steve Wright in this work argues that they can be critically incorporated. Wright, The Weight of the Printed Word, XXI-XXII and Claudio Del Bello ed. Una sparatoria tranquilla. Per una storia orale del ‘77, (Rome: Odradek, 1997), vii.

6 John McMillian, Smoking Typewriters. The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America, (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
7 Todd Gitlin, The Whole World is Watching. Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left,(Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1980).
8 In particular see Nicholas Thoburn, Anti-Book.On the Art and Radical Politics of  Publishing, (Minneapolis: University of Michigan Press, 2016) and Nicholas Thoburn, “The Strangest Cult: Material Forms of the Political Book through Deleuze and Guattari,” Deleuze Studies 7, no. 1 (2013): 53–82.
9 Thoburn, “The Strangest Cult,” 56.
10 I am indebted to Richard Brodie for pointing me towards the coverage of Sohn-Rethel by Lotta Continua, and providing a preliminary translation of this passage. His research will be an important contribution to upcoming collections of Sohn-Rethel’s writings published by Verso and Haymarket books. See Costanzo Preve, “Commodities and Thought: Sohn-Rethel’s Book,” Lotta Continua, (August 5th, 1977): 6.
11 Mario Tronti, Operai e Capitale (Milano: Einaudi, 1966) and Mario Tronti, Workers and Capital,  trans. David Broder (New York and London: Verso, 2019).
12 Tronti, Workers and Capital, 65.
13 See Regis Debray, “Socialism: A Life Cycle,” New Left Review no. 46 (July/August 2007)  Quoted in Wright, The Weight of the Printed Word, 15-16.
14 Vladimir Illich Lenin, 1901, ‘Where to Begin’, Iskra 4, (May, 1901) available from <>, quoted in Wright, The Weight of the Printed Word, 18.
15 See the extensive study of the limitations of Debray’s model of statist counter-hegemonic resistance by Robert Cavooris “From Subaltern to State: Toward a Left Critique of the Pink Tide,” Viewpoint, (September 28, 2014)
16 Leon Trotsky, “Vodka the Church and the Cinema,”Pravda (July 12th, 1923)
17 Debray,“Socialism: A Life Cycle,” 9.
18 The work of Matteo Pasquinelli has been particularly important in exploring the importance of Alquati’s studies to the emerging analysis of cybernetic workflows. See in particular his essay “Italian Operaismo and the Information Machine,” Theory, Culture and Society, vol. 32 no. 3  (2015): 49–68.
19 Wright mentions use of the term with reference to an interview with Stefania Sarsini, a former member of Potere Operaio. Wright, Weight of the Printed Word, 35. I was fortunate to discuss this particular history with Mariarosa Dalla Costa, co-founder of Lotta Femminista, at her home in Padova in the fall of 2019 and spring of 2020 while digitizing her archives collected in the Biblioteca Civica di Padova. Dalla Costa confirmed Wright’s account and added that the term was reappropriated by members of Lotta Femminista as one of endearment, teasing, flirtation, etc. in their own processes of producing documents most of which were printed on cyclostyle machines by group members for distribution within the working class neighborhoods of Mestre and the Tre Veneto region throughout the 1970s.
20 Lotta Femminista, “I nuovi soggetti rivoluzioneri,” Mille fiori sbocciano appassiti. Le operaie della casa. Numero speciale/documento, (Aprile 1977): 17.
21 Both this work and Wright’s previous book Storming Heaven, include important considerations of this problem as militants worked through considerations of the essay and book form within a Marxian tradition. In this regard the operaist critique of Georgy Lukacs is quite important as it helped to deconstruct the relation between a reading of the essay and  novel-form, political consciousness and party formation. See in particular Storming Heaven, 34-35 and the discussion of the reception of History and Class Consciousness amongst the operaisti in Weight of the Printed Word, 89-95.
22 Wright, Weight of the Printed Word, 38–39.
23 Wright addresses the question of the mistrust of the book and essay form amongst the operaisti in Part 2: Essays and their Contexts, particularly Chapter 8, “The Essay and its Discontents.” Wright, The Weight of the Printed Word, 119–133.
24 Danilo Montaldi, Militanti politici di base, (Turin: Einaudi, 1971).
25 See Massimiliano Tomba, Marx’s Temporalities, (Leiden: Brill, 2013) as well as his more recent work Insurgent Universality: An Alternative Legacy of Modernity, (London: Oxford University Press, 2019).
26 With few expectations, Gambino’s work remains untranslated and little-known to an English readership despite its importance in serving as an interface between the CLR James circles in Detroit and Potere Operaio and his crucial role in organizing publications addressing immigration and the violent recolonization of the global south. For a fascinating overview of Gambino’s work with an attached interview see Dylan Davis, “Capitalist Faultlines and Subterranean Resistances: Traces of Struggle in the Work of Ferruccio Gambino,” Viewpoint Magazine, (November 5, 2019)
27 The text reads:

“EMIGRANT COMRADES: in 25 years the bosses and governments have driven 6 million proletarians from Italy. They have hosted us in “work camps” and barracks throughout Europe, our work was commanded in all languages. The French, Germans and Swiss have exploited us, but those who gained the most were the Italian state and its bosses.  Not only because they took advantage, in every possible way, through dirty speculation, of the remittances we sent home from abroad but, above all, because by sending us away they banished their enemies. 

The unemployed are the enemy of those who do not give them work: and so, we must be driven away from Italy! But, emigrant comrades, whose fault is it that there is no work in Italy? The fault lies with the bosses and their state. In fact, the bosses provide work in Italy only when it is to their advantage. When workers struggle for higher wages, less work and a better life, then the bosses create unemployment. Indeed, unemployment and the threat of emigration are the blackmail that the boss and the state use against workers’ struggle (in 1969 alone the Italian bosses moved three thousand billion in investments abroad to punish workers struggling against unemployment in Italy).

 The fact is, comrades, that it is always the boss who decides who works and who doesn’t. As long as there is capitalism this is our destiny: to be near or far from the country, to be forced to stay or to leave as a temporary worker or to repatriate. All this remains in the hands of the owners and their state. Emigrant comrades, this being the reality, we must rebel. It is useless to bemoan the fact that there is no work in Italy as the unions and all reformists do. We must rebel, not mourn. Let’s tell everyone when we go back to the villages that we are tired of depending on the will of the bosses not to give us work. They tell us: there is no work here, there is no paycheck here. We answer: that fact there is no work, is not our fault, but your own. If working means emigrating, we won’t ask for work, we will ask for wages. We want a paycheck even if we don’t work.

 A GUARANTEED SALARY FOR EVERYONE: this is our slogan. Millions of workers from all over Italy struggle for this demand, because even those who work know that someday they could be forced to emigrate, that unemployment is a danger that looms over their heads every day. The interests of all the workers, the employed, the unemployed and those who have to emigrate, are therefore the same: united we can and must fight! When we return to the villages this Easter, on the dirty trains that never arrive, let’s spread these words of struggle to everyone: GUARANTEED WAGE FOR ALL, ENOUGH WITH THE BLACKMAIL, ENOUGH WITH THE SYSTEM OF MASTERS. And when we return to be exploited in factories throughout Europe, in the dirty shacks where they isolate us as savages, let’s proclaim this slogan again, to all the other emigrants: to the Spaniards to the Greeks to the Yugoslavs to the Algerians, because together we may struggle to defeat the system of masters everywhere. Let’s get organized to fight against emigration, to choose to live where we want, not to be reduced to stray dogs roaming Europe. Let’s organize against the Swiss and German bosses who throw us back to Italy when it suits them, let’s organize ourselves against the repatriation that is imposed on us in every economic crisis. UNITED WE FIGHT FOR A GUARANTEED WAGE FOR ALL!”

28 See the translation of Vogliamo tutto by Matt Holden from 2014, Nanni Balestrini, We Want Everything, trans. Matt Holden, (London and New York: Verso, 2014). Holden’s translation is now joined by Richard Braude’s excellent translation and introduction to The Golden Horde, Balestrini’s collaborative work with Primo Moroni which is perhaps even more essential in terms of constituting a media history of a certain period of operaismo and autonomia. Nanni Balestrini and Primo Moroni eds., The Golden Horde. Revolutionary Italy, 1960–1977, trans. Richard Braude, (London: Seagull Books, 2021) 
29 Of course, important distinctions that can be made in this particular historical context do not argue against the necessity of an umbrella term, such as Harry Cleaver’s description of “autonomous marxisms” used as a guiding thread to chart the widespread dissatisfaction with existing structures for mediating class conflict in the post-war era. For a basic summary of Cleaver’s project of reading Marx primarily as a theorist of working class resistance and charting the relation between a radical Marxian tradition, black radicalism, feminist movements and anti-colonial revolts of the post-war era.  Harry Cleaver, Reading Capital Politically, (New York: AK Press/Anti Thesis, 2000), 1–68.
30 The version of autonomia best-known to an English-language readership is, for better and for worse, a certain elaboration of autonomia creativa which has come to stand for the movement as a whole in many academic and activist contexts. This is of course due to the reception of certain protagonists of the movement through their interface with French and American academia during the period of exile and the publication of important collections such as  Christian Marazzi and Sylvere Lottringer eds. Autonomia. A Post-political Politics, (Los Angeles and Cambridge: Semiotexte/MIT Press, 2007). As a counterpoint to this particular form of presentation, the clearest and most detailed account I am aware of in English charting adaptation of the moniker “autonomia” and the politics of various groups throughout the 1970s is Patrick Cunnighame’s 2002 dissertation in particular chapters 5 and 6 in which Cunninghame gives accounts of “organized,” “diffused,” “armed” and “creative” forms of the movement and their inter-relation. Patrick Cunnighame, “Autonomia: a movement of refusal: social movements and social conflict in Italy in the 1970s” PhD diss. (Middlesex University, 2002) 102–199.
31 The opening text reads: “The story of the communist revolution today finds itself at a historic turning point. The failure of the Soviet experience and now that of the Chinese returns us to the question Marx had posed: that of  Europe as the geography where the height of contradiction is produced by the combination of advanced development and the wealth of proletarian needs. This need, at the highest level of development, becomes a productive force: of liberation, of time, of non-work. The European multinationals march on with things (repression, nuclear war, labor markets). But the premises are given for the embryonic emergence of movements. The cultural unification of the youth, the proletariat, migrants, the nomads of the refusal of work and the immediate and urgent form of communism.”
32 Criticism of the various groups of autonomia in this regard (Senza Tregua and A/TRAVERSO in particular) was particularly harsh from Lotta Femminista in their journal published during the crisis of 1977. Lotta Femminista, “I nuovi soggetti rivoluzioneri,” Mille fiori sbocciano appassiti. Le operaie della casa. Numero speciale/documento, (Aprile 1977) 
33 Wright, Weight of the Printed Word, 215.
34 Extensive digital archives of the journals of  operaismo and autonomia are collected at including issues of Rosso.
35 Quoted by Wright in Weight of the Printed Word, 234. The original editorial is ‘Quattro parole di presentazione’, Rosso vol 1, no. 19 (March 1973): 1.
36 Radio Alice exerted a particular fascination for Felix Guattari whose writings on the station have been the basis for much of its subsequent notoriety. See Luciano Capelli, Radio Alice, radio libre: Préface de Félix Guattari, (Paris: Delarge, 1977). Wright accounts for some of the hilarity and remarkably progressive gender politics of Onda Rossa. Wright, chapter 23 “‘A paper that speaks, a radio that writes’: I Volsci and the impact of radio on the printed word,” The Weight of the Printed Word, 274-275.
37 The Moroni archive description with a small collection of its scanned materials may be found at and a description of the Finzi archive at
38 See Primo Moroni, “Ma l’amor mio non muore,” Maledetti compagni, vi amerò. La sinistra antagonista nelle parole dei protagonisti degli ultimi vent’anni di conflitto, edited by Romano Giuffrida et al., (Rome: Datanews), 15–44. Quoted in Wright, Weight of the Printed Word, 290.
39 “To whom does the belly of this woman belong?! To the church? To the state? To the Medici? To the bosses? No! It’s your own! We demand free abortion on demand with medical assistance because three million women, in Italy alone, have had abortions and twenty-thousand of these have paid for the choice with death. But, above all, we no longer want to be forced to abort. We want control of our bodies, to have the children that we want. We demand safe contraceptives, ones not harmful to our health, and free healthcare under our control. Control of our body means that we might live our sexuality freely without it being structured by the fatigue of work in the home and outside of it.”
40 The group formed originally in the Mestre region, the working-class petrochemical manufacturing district between Venice and Padova that was a hotbed of revolt and organization for the Italian extra-parliamentary left. The group initially adapted the moniker Lotta Femminile meaning simply ‘feminine’ or ‘female’ struggle before embracing the more-militant term femminista in response to the rise of feminist movements globally. In 1972, Lotta Femminista would coordinate the initial meetings of the International Feminist Collective in 1972 which formed the basis for the Wages for Housework movement internationally. In 1973 Lotta Femminista split into two groups with one embracing the Wages for Housework Movement and renaming itself Lotta Femminista per il salario al lavoro domestico. Despite the split, the groups would continue to collaborate on various initiatives throughout the 70s. A founding text of the movement is generally considered to be Mariarosa Dalla Costa’s Potere Femminile e sovversione sociale, which became a classic of second-wave feminism through its English language translation in collaboration with Selma James as The Power of Women and Subversion of the Community. A detailed history of the group can be found in Louis Toupin, Wages for Housework. The History of an International Feminist Movement 1972–1977, (London and Vancouver: Pluto Press and UBC Press, 2018), 83–121, 220–240.
41 The publication of Lotta Femminista most representative in this regard is Mille fiori sbocciano appassiti.” Le operaie della casa. Numero speciale/documento. Aprile 1977.
42 It should be noted that, although the book is currently released by the academic publisher Brill, whose financing model is one of high-priced institutional sales and subscriptions, thankfully a much cheaper trade edition from Haymarket is forthcoming.

Author of the article

is completing a Ph.D. in the Department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University where his scholarly work explores the relation between social movements and the mass media. He holds a BA and MFA from Columbia University. Arlen is the co-editor with Silvia Federici of The New York Wages for Housework Movement 1972 - 1979: History, Theory and Documents. His writings and archival projects have appeared in GLQ. A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, TDR: The Theatre and Drama Review, differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, and as part of the "Abusable Past" series from Radical History Review.