/// Introductory comments and summary

We read and discussed the following two texts:

‘Mass worker and social worker: reflections on the “new class composition”‘ by Alberto Battaggia

‘Class composition and the theory of the party at the origins of the workers’ council movement’ by Sergio Bologna 

Similar to the other main concept of revolutionary strategy, the concept of even and uneven development and permanent revolution, the concept of class composition has been reduced to a sociological tool to analyse the stratification of a particular workforce or the technical organisation of the production process. The component of strategy and dynamics that point beyond the existing mode of production has been neglected. 

The question we need to raise is: based on the current phase of capitalism, with a particular organisation of social production and a particular contradiction between class relations and social forces of production, what kind of social alternative can a working class movement express, and which parts of the working class are most able to galvanise this trajectory within a movement?

The text by Battaggia written in 1981 summarises the main aspects of the concept of class composition, the article by Bologna from 1972 exemplifies them historically. 

/ Battaggia

Battaggia outlines the main contours of the concept of class composition by contrasting how the concept was used to describe the ‘mass workers’ and their political role in the 1960s with the way that, amongst others, Negri used the concept of ‘social workers’ in the 1970s.

Here it is useful to think of class composition as part of a particular phase. Battagia’s text starts with the concept of ‘mass worker’, which might need unpacking. This concept cannot be reduced to ‘low-skilled assembly line workers’. This has to be seen in a wider context of the experience of migration, of an experience of a wider range of consumption goods and leisure time on one side and military-style factory regimes on the other, of an increasingly feminised factory workforce, of ‘Cold War’ promises and degradations of the old communist movement, the development of a technocratic social democracy that extended the factory plan to the various state departments, with the trade unions in tow. This particular context allowed the factory workers to be the central force of a wider critique of modern capitalism and its various authorities, expressed in general programmatic terms: ‘More money, less work’. 

Battaggia states that the ‘mass worker’ was a clear segment of the class, a clear practical relation between workers and with the means of production, with a clear relation between form of production and form of struggle – and deriving from it a clear role within the wider class movement. 

He looks at Negri who extends the concept to a more dispersed group (small companies, demoted white-collar workers, informal sector workers etc.) in the 1970s. He looks at Negri’s claim that the homogenous character of the social worker is established by four main elements of the new phase: “the decentralisation of production, the inflationary mechanism, the reorientation of public spending and the party system.” To this we could add Negri’s claim that the abstraction of labour, e.g. the ‘deskilling’ of white collar work, also forms a common enough experience of the ‘social worker’ in order to create a homogeneous subjectivity. 

Battaggia is critical of this extension of the concept of class composition. For him the ‘social worker’ has only a formal homogeneity in relation to valorisation, but not in material terms as collective workers and political subject. He suggests analysing the different new and divided realities and segments of the working class that emerged with the restructuring process of the mid-1970s, rather than claiming that a new subject has entered the scene. In this regard, Bologna’s text, ‘Tribe of Moles’ about the movement in 1977 can serve as an example.

/ Bologna

Bologna claims that a particular workers figure was at the heart of the council movement in Germany – workers who were highly skilled, had administrative knowledge or, like the miners, were difficult to replace by technological or rationalising methods. The starting point for these workers is the workplace; they are suspicious of ‘politics’. Bologna calls them a ‘labour aristocracy’ that, at a certain point in time, under the pressure of the war, was able to turn this role into a revolutionary homogeneity. They formed a revolutionary vanguard at a point when capitalist development, at least in other parts of the world like the USA, had already made them an anachronistic force. 

The state reacted by trying to confine these workers through work council legislation and general trade unionism – relating to their workplace focus. These workers were the reference point first for Bernstein, who said that the ‘movement is everything’ and emphasised the need to focus on the economic power of the class, rather than its political representation. Later on Luxemburg also had to reckon with this workers figure, when she tried to create a network of SPD and trade union rank-and-file members, most of whom were skilled workers. The rigidity of this workforce can explain the reactionary nature of German social democracy in power and later on the aggressive and militaristic turn of the German state, as an attempt to break the internal deadlock of development.

Bologna then stresses the international character of the council movement, and claims that the movement had a political homogeneity, despite major imbalances in terms of capitalist development, e.g. between Russia, Germany, UK or the US. Bologna contrasts the situation in Germany with the class relations in the US: unskilled workers, high level of migration, a new organisation of production in the mass factories. He underlines the role of the IWW that managed to turn a tool of capital to undermine contemporary working class power – ‘deskilling’ and mobility – into a weapon for class organisation. 

After having analysed the various aspects of class composition of the council movement, Bologna looks at how the different political tendencies related to it, in the form of revisionist (Bernstein), syndicalist (DeLeon) and revolutionary (Luxemburg, Lenin) organisation. 

It is interesting to note that he does not just discard Bernstein’s ‘economism’, but he locates it within a wider dynamic of the actual workers’ movement, their anti-political stance and immediate workplace organisations. Similarly, he does not just criticise Luxemburg’s attempt to fish within the SPD, but shows that the situation in Germany was very different to the situation in Russia, which seemed to necessitate a Bolshevik model of politics. His main criticism towards Luxemburg is her ignorance towards the role that trade unions play in the confinement of the class movement. 

He concludes that the council movement did not fail on the level of workers’ self-management, but in the transition from mass strike to insurrection.

/// Notes from the discussion

We started by asking ourselves what Negri meant by the claim that the new class composition of the ‘social worker’ was characterised by a phase of “subsumption of circulation by production”. 

“What does the ‘subsumption of circulation by production’ mean for example? It seems to be an attempt to explain the phenomenon of rampant inflation experienced in the 1970s and even to suggest that surplus value no longer existed in the production process but had shifted to circulation. What does this mean though?… the processes of production and circulation are inextricably linked: you cannot have one without the other.”

In a way it would make more sense to say that since the mid-1970s ‘production was subsumed by circulation’, in the sense that more capital was pumped into credit systems and stock markets and, as in the case of General Motors, the biggest industrial company of the world at the time, which started to make more money from the investment of the workers’ pensions in global stock markets than from making cars.

Production and consciousness

The main discussion in relation to the Battaggia text evolved around the question of whether workers’ political subjectivity or consciousness derives directly from the form of production they are situated within. Perhaps this is not a mechanistic relationship, but it is clear that the organisational forms and visions of socialism of artisans in 1848 was substantially different from those of skilled industrial workers in 1917 or the so-called mass workers and their refusal of work in 1969. 

If we try to answer this question historically with Bologna we can see that there are certain contradictions in his text. On one side he claims that the form of production and the form of political expression of workers is closely linked. On the other hand, he says that the council movement was an international and politically homogeneous movement despite the unevenness in capital development. While there were definitely high levels of class struggle in the US in 1905 or 1920, did we actually see a council movement? To what extent do the different political and organisational forms, e.g. the IWW’s syndicalism, the mass work of Luxemburg or the revolutionary Jacobinism of Lenin, actually derive from different regional class compositions, and to what extent are they primarily plain expressions of political differences, of different political trajectories? One result of Bologna’s attempt to relate the various political tendencies closely to a particular class composition is that his own position, e.g. about the relation between spontaneity and organisation, strikes and insurrection, remains unclear. 

Who is the ‘revolutionary subject?’ Is class composition still a useful concept today?

“So, the operaist inquiry is a way of going back to leftist roots of actually investigating what is really going on in capitalism and doing so starting with first hand inquiries and patching those inquiries together to generate non-academic militant theory that helps to understand capitalism better and to organise as revolutionary workers.”

“The author’s use of class composition to ascribe meaning to why and which workers took up a particular role in the struggle, to me, only works as a way to analyse something ‘after the event’. How can this be put to practical effect nowadays without the theory becoming deterministic? Different groups of workers always have the ‘potential’ to become a vanguard for a wider social struggle, but this isn’t exactly revelatory. ‘Class composition’ may be useful to make us think about the organic links and experiences of workers that would need to utilise for a struggle to become truly offensive. But again, in a largely globalised workforce these organic connections already exist’ they merely have to be uncovered in struggle. So I found it difficult to see how it might be useful as a concept to identify potentially revolutionary ‘subjects’ within a particular phase of capitalism.” 

“Trying to identify a sector (or sectors) of the class which, because of their relation to the productive process, have a greater capacity for potentially revolutionary struggle, and a greater ability to draw other sectors of the class with it/them. Someone mentioned the term ‘strategic thinking’, and this seems to be a part of it. It is not clear to me how far Battaggia in particular considers that the relation between workers’ place in the productive process and their revolutionary potential is a deterministic one. However, the discussion seemed to agree at least that it is not one of hard determinism.”

In this sense it might be less fruitful to use the concept of class composition to look for the single ‘subject’ that can express a new class antagonism, but rather to understand it in terms of strategy. It is easy to find the core workers concentrations or structurally strong sectors, it is much more difficult to discover the organic links that these segments have with other elements of the class, e.g. the world of universities and science, the marginal and informal sectors, the small scale ‘shit jobs’. This becomes even more complicated if we relate these segments to a particular phase, for example, as a comrade pointed out, the phase of war, which historically was closely attached to the prospect of revolution (1871, 1905, 1917 etc.). 

We can share Battaggia’s concerns regarding the proclamation of ‘new subjects’ which are often used to ‘do politics’ with. Here we can see parallels to the way that ‘the precariat’ or ‘the unemployed graduate’ were stylised as new subjects primarily in order to propose ‘universal rights’ or ‘a new democracy’ or ‘a guaranteed minimum income’. These are rather campaign-like external demands, rather than a class program that emerges out of a movement, carried by a particular segment and their collective strength. At the same time, it might make little strategic sense to say that ‘the working class is the entire class in relation to capital’. We are torn here between two equally valid political tasks, firstly, to understand and explain the material basis for divisions in the class; secondly, to insist that despite our apparent differences, our fate is equally tied to the victories and defeats of the movement of our class. In this sense, “the other guys are like you”.   

In a way the problem of ‘the subject’, and whether it is actually constituted by material and practical relations within, is closer to home. Since the pandemic and in the current phase of inflation and multiple crises (climate, war) we emphasised the social responsibility of the ‘essential workers’. We hoped that a form of subject would constitute around the common experience that the current crisis and the current way production is organised endangers social reproduction – first of all experienced by those who work in essential jobs. The clash between ‘applause for the pandemic heroes’, the phase of fire-and-rehire and inflation, and the first signs of a ‘strike wave’ could have created a combustion for a new subjectivity. We have to ask ourselves if the fact that these workers are just combined by their sometimes blurry social necessity is enough to create a common subjectivity. This is questionable given the very dispersed and varied ways that ‘essential workers’ actually work, from nurses to food assembly line workers to programmers for rail transport, and the diverse frameworks within which they are exploited, from large corporations to family businesses to the ‘public’ NHS. Still, we have to find a way to go beyond being cheerleaders of ‘strike waves’ or ‘popular movements’ and ask which struggles can re-combine a dispersed productive social knowledge and a sense of social responsibility with the reconstitution of class power and organisation. 

“As I thought already, old Marx and Engels were all about the nuances and differences with different kinds of workers: industrial, rural, domestic, male, female, children, artisanal, unskilled, Irish, English etc etc. But yes, operaismo/workerism was/is super valuable for the Left as it seemed to regenerate a real fresh and hands-on Marxism, free and wild and uncorrupted of bureaucratic parties and unions.

For us, this class composition concept still seems very helpful as it points at the dividing lines in the global production processes and the working class. Which helps to pose questions on how to organise together as workers across those divisions. And how to relate to the ongoing conflicts and struggles and social tendencies that exist already today.”

When it comes to the relevance of this debate for today we said that the concept of class composition is still useful in a situation where most people don’t look for answers within the actual phase, the actual struggles and their material conditions, but for easy shortcuts in the form of ‘taking over the Labour party’. The concept has to combine a face-to-face level of inquiry regarding tendencies such as deskilling or reskilling, with a birdseye view on sectorial and global developments. 

How is class composition related to the current debate about the strike wave and the question of strategy?

Whilst the discussion around the mechanisms of capitalist social relations have to operate on the level of ‘capital in general’ and understand capitalism at its ‘ideal average’, the work of Operaismo theorises at a level of historical specificity. Whilst it would be ridiculous to suggest that Operaismo is unconcerned by the high-theoretical discussion of capital in its ideal average, it is insufficient to us as communists to simply develop and reassert the project of the critique of political economy begun by Marx. Understanding the mechanics of capitalist society and its development is crucial to any communist project, but as Battaggia mentions, 

“One could object that homogeneity [of various class segments] is given by their common relationship to the process of valorisation. This objection may be faultless on the formal plane of the critique of political economy, but it is weak on the substantial plane of the critique of politics, i.e. of the revolutionary political organisation of antagonism.” 

This is the essence of much of the strength of the tendency of Operaismo. Whilst there are many comrades committed to investigating the extent of the revolutionary potential of the working class, few theoretical traditions are so advanced in strategising the actualisation of it. Without losing sight of the social totality of capitalism, class composition theory/strategy climbs down to exactly this “critique of politics” and drives toward the utter destruction of class society and the capital relation on the terrain of the immediate class struggle. Battaggia again, 

“The term “class composition” shouldn’t be limited to the description of modes of being of the working class, but must also locate those crucial elements of political struggle which unite its components: those struggles which, [as] in the case of the mass worker, pivoted on the conjunction between the immediate motivations of antagonism (the struggle against the machine) and more general and historical ones (the negation of the capitalist mode of production).”

Going back to the earlier point we discussed on the concept of a ‘subject’ that exists within a given class composition. Indeed, this was the subject of the political debate of many of the comrades following the cycles of struggle in Italy (broadly) between 1956 and 1977. Maybe some of us missed the political clarity of the concept. Bologna helps to clarify the idea of this subject, 

“In the class composition of pre-War Germany, the Ruhr miners represented the most advanced sector. This working-class nucleus was perhaps the only one with the ability to set in motion the whole social class fabric when it entered into struggle.” 

This formulation of class composition is founded on the presupposition that the working class is structurally burdened with the potential to enact revolution within capitalist social relations. It goes further however, recognising that whilst that potential is ever-present, just as in the cycles of struggle between 1904 and 1920 the revolutionary moments of 1956, 1967-9 and 1974-77 were brought about by definite sections of the working class forcing their own limited struggles onto the wider class through the articulation of material homogeneity of the conditions of their antagonisms with capital. In many ways, we could understand this element of class composition as a sort of “workerist theory of the vanguard”, to be vulgar. Contrary to traditional Leninist theory though, the Italian comrades reframed the vanguard from the party-trained cadres preparing for the seizure of the administration of state power to the vanguard within the class which pre-exists the party vanguard by virtue of its relation to social value production and the political configuration that arises from this. It is in this that the tendency avoids the common pitfalls of many attempts to excavate the legacy of 1917 by mediating endlessly about “consciousness” and how to “bring consciousness to the masses”. Instead, the focus for the “workerist comrades” is on the political expressions that arise from the concrete struggles of the class. It is, I think, in this that ‘operaismo’ captures the revolutionary materialism that defines Marx’s later work, and through this that they represent the most advanced communist theory and strategy to be developed since the revolution of ‘17 and its degeneration. 

We recently decided to engage critically with reflections on the “strike wave” in the UK, such as those of comrades from Notes from Below. I think that the Battagia article points toward what is essentially missing from any discussions on “how to win the strike wave”. In many of the appraisals of the tasks for workers in struggle, the focus is too narrow. It seems as though the understanding of workers’ resistance to various mechanisms of the power of capital has broadly been reduced to particular groups of workers struggling against their particular employer. This analysis has emptied the strike of all of its political potential, and reduced an analysis of working class power to a cumulative tally of separate disputes. From this approach, we are left with nowhere to go other than a series of demands to be presented to the ruling class backed up with the threat of “disruption”. This is all well and good, but from this there isn’t a single trace of the revolutionary potential of the working class to overthrow the rule of capital and begin the “real movement that abolishes the present state of things”. That’s to say; builds communism. Battagia’s reflections on class composition then become crucial if we are to take seriously the task of “winning the strike wave”. The crucial passage is,

“In our case, a section of the labour force made materially homogenous by a particular relationship to capitalist technology (the assembly line) and a consequent political behaviour: the demand for wages as income, the refusal of work and sabotage. It was precisely this homogeneity which allowed the working class of the Hot Autumn to become a “class composition”, drive the revolutionary process, impose its struggles onto society and force a profound revision of the traditional theoretical apparatus of class struggle. All of this was made possible by the powerful link between an objective fact (material conditions of exploitation) and a subjective one (political behaviour).”

In this, we begin to understand a methodology that is capable of bringing about a revolutionary rupture. It is this “material homogeneity” that must be the basis of the activity of the working class, and only if this is expressed subjectively by workers through struggle that we can really “win the strike wave”. In the past, we have attempted to locate this homogeneity in categories such as “essential work”, or the “massification” of work such as can be found in the reflections of comrades in the health sector. The issue is that even as these tendencies express themselves, as Bologna emphasises, the emergence of revolutionary tendencies requires revolutionary organisation.” 

The question of inquiry and the tension between middle-class and working class intellectuals

“These two texts and the discussion we had about them got me thinking about how we can unite theory and practice within our own workplaces. For example, the socialization of factory regimes to structure labor from the 1981 text was especially insightful. The education industry has definitely taken on a factory regime more and more since the 1980s, and even more so since the covid crisis in the US. For example, before moving into education, I worked in manufacturing for some time as a temp/seasonal worker. Schools here in the US, especially charter schools, are increasingly relying on substitutes and other temp workers provided through third party agencies. Financialisation has helped facilitate this as a mechanism for creating increasingly abstracted forms of labor in some parts of the economy while producing “deskilled”, highly labor intensive work in others.

The reading on the origin of the party in the German workers’ council movement stressed to me… how all our struggles are connected. While we need to adjust our approach for each national legal situation, our exploitation is essentially the same. That exploitation may take divergent forms, of course. I think again of the 1981 text about the socialization of factory labor. While different types of exploitation are experienced differently, we are all exploited for our labor power in all its diverse forms. Internationalism and the hard work it entails will be especially important for the movements of our class in the 21st century.

One thing I noticed in the history of workers’ inquiry is the tension between the worker and the intellectual. To a certain extent I think this tension is artificial, the old IWW for example was filled with self-described worker-intellectuals like Sam Dolgoff (highly recommend Left of the Left, his biography). But I think it’s easy for intellectuals from the middle and upper classes to drown out the intellectual voices of workers because they don’t have the vocab of the “academy.” This is why I think the idea of workers’ *self* inquiry is so important. In my push to unionize my workplace, for example, I keep a daily workplace journal. I record my experiences, interactions with management (good and bad), strategic conversations with coworkers, notes on how the workplace is laid out, composition of the workforce, and more.”

What about the role of war?

One comrade raised the point that class composition ignores other main elements of a class movement, such as the war or longer-standing ‘socialist organisation’.

“It also seems to me that Bologna leaves out two fundamental determinants of the historical situation of the day: war, and the presence of mass movements (e.g. the SPD) with an explicitly socialist programme. Without going into depth, it is surely clear that the appearance of the Soviets and the whole revolutionary process in Russia (and later in Germany) was shaped by the experience of war: defeat in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, then in WWI in 1917 (and 1919 for Germany). The dividing line between revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries was internationalism: the attitude towards imperialist war. This dividing line is still very much with us, more clearly than ever as regards Ukraine. The point about the ‘socialist programme’ (whatever its shortcomings) was that large sections of the working class saw some kind of ‘socialism’ as a goal that was both possible and desirable. ‘Socialism’ was very present as a sort of ‘inspirational idea’. I think that today this has largely disappeared from working-class consciousness, though I was intrigued by A.’s remark that a sort of ‘Utopian socialism’ is widespread; I would be interested to explore further just what he meant by that.”

Questioning Bologna’s assumptions

“Bologna covered a very wide range and lots of the empirical detail was instructive. The key questions I was left with included: How far was there any qualitative break between the “workers councils” in Germany pre-1917 (i.e. corporatist structures involving the unions in the decision-making process within a factory?) and the potentially revolutionary councils of workers, soldiers and sailors that appeared at the end of 1918? Is Bologna suggesting that the differences were only superficial and insufficient to play a role in a successful revolution across Germany?

Separately, I think he’s saying that in 1917-21 “the working class as a whole was attempting … a worldwide 1905”. That’s a neat formulation but there seemed to be a couple of problems when he chooses Bernstein, Luxemburg, De Leon and Lenin as his key sources to better understand the framework of the discussions in and around the workers’ movement. In the case of De Leon, I didn’t feel that he teased out the critical question of how the SLP’s “praxis” varied from the IWW’s industrial unionism. Was De Leon’s defence of “the party form” significant? Also, “I found the omission of Trotsky puzzling…”