Interview with Vittorio Rieser

3rd October 2001. Published in F. Pozzi and G. Roggero (eds) Futuro Anteriore, (Roma: Deriveapprodi, 2002)

Vittorio Rieser

Political, cultural development and main reference points.

Once Panzieri arrived in Turin in ‘59 we immediately began to work together since I knew him from before. Alongside this 'students-workers alliance' in Turin, in Milan we also met Alquiati, Gasparotto and others. Panzieri furthermore had established a series of relations with intellectual such as Tronti and Asor Rosa since the times of Mondo Operaio (Worker's World).[1]

All of us came together in the ‘60s around two issues. One was the project concerning a journal i.e. Quaderni Rossi, which became a reality the following year. The other was a research project on FIAT that began in the summer of 1960. Panzieri’s influence in this latter project was decisive because until then we had been working with the unions in other factories in Turin where there were already struggles taking place. We wanted to work in the context where struggles were taking place. Panzieri instead used to say: “No! We have to take up the question and issues in FIAT, and the only means of doing this is enquiry (Inchiesta)”. For this reason, we all united around this project. Alquati and Gasparotto joined us in Turin and the nucleus of the Quaderni Rossi of this city was born.

At the beginning Quaderni Rossi was a project in collaboration with the unions and also with the PSI of Turin that had a 'left wing' federation. We were active in FIAT but also in Olivetti. Indeed, the first issue of Quaderni Rossi features a large contribution by unionists, including Vittorio Foa. Vittorio Foa in fact was one of the most influential persons and somebody common to members of the group operating both in Turin (he had roots in Turin, I also knew him personally from the time he came out of prison) and members of the group in Rome (Panzieri had many links with him).

Half of the articles were produced by unionists. Despite this however the first issue was released during the time of the first rupture with the unions. The unions of Turin at the time were accused of being too far on the left and therefore had to hit back at their left. From our side, in my view, the rupture may have been an error stemming from a form of 'infantile extremism'.

The episode over which the rupture occurred was a summer strike at the maintenance department of the FIAT steel plant, which Gasparotto and Gobbi were following. Although we were involved in the strikes with FIOM, we decided to make a first leaflet independently of FIOM.[2] Rather, we made it on behalf of a group of workers inviting the rest to organise. This in itself has no consequence, and the leaflet was accepted by the only FIOM representative present. Later however a second leaflet was made that read: “it is necessary to organise independently, outside of the unions!”. It was roneotyped in a clandestine manner in FIOM and distributed. Over this leaflet, the rupture occurred. This was further aggravated by our actions in a subsequent meeting that was held to clarify the situation with the unions. We circulated a document in which we argued against the opportunism prevalent in the left wing political parties, and suggested that the unions take up a political role and be the embryo of the revolutionary organisations of the working class. This, according to me, was an infantile form of 'anarco-syndicalism'.

The rupture occurred in the autumn of ’61. Due to the slow timings of the typography, that issue of the Quaderni Rossi (that had been ready for months) came out just afterwards. This created a situation that was embarrassing for the unionists. There was indeed an entire page of L’Unit´┐Ż with an article written by Garavini that created polemics with the Quaderni Rossi . Poor Garavini was caught up in a problem whereby if he spoke of the Quaderni Rossi, people would have gone to buy them and asked him “you have collaborated, true?”. So, then, a mysterious article was published that was very harsh but did not name the enemy explicitly.

Limits and Positive Aspects of the Quaderni Rossi.

There were three positive aspects. The first was the theoretical element, i.e. a return to Marx, not through the various and more or less dogmatic Marxisms (including those dominant in the communist parties), but as an instrument useful for the analysis of capitalism. Panzieri in his articles was decided to bring this about.

Linked to this there was an analysis of capitalism as a dynamic system. We have to keep in mind that within the working class movement of the time there were currents that saw Italian capitalism as retrograde and backward. Already at that time this position was being questioned, in the unions and not only there. In the old scheme of the PCI there was the idea that class struggle emerges out of the conditions created by backward forms of capitalism. We instead argued that class struggle must and can be developed under advanced capitalist conditions.

The third element was the rejection of the idea that the working class becomes 'integrated' in the system where capitalism is most advanced. We never believed in this (unlike other factions). Returning to Marx was a peculiar aspect of the Quaderni Rossi. The fact that workers in FIAT were not 'integrated' was understood by all the Union movement in Italy. What was important was the use of this understanding in the enquiry in FIAT. This was one of the cases where enquiry did not limit itself to confirm an already given hypothesis. Rather the enquiry led to a realisation of the tensions that existed, anticipating the explosion of the struggles in FIAT. We also saw this in situations such as those in Olivetti. Here, however, the conflict was through the union struggle and therefore to some extent more 'normal'.

The limits.

There was a limitation in our uncritical acceptance of the representation of industrial capitalism as advanced. It was clear that such conception was ideological in the sense of undermining the working class in its movements. We nevertheless made the error of seeing it as a real concrete programme, which it was not. I was a careful interpreter of Carli, Mario Tronti was of Moro. Both of us nevertheless accepted the representations of Aldo Moro, Pasquale Saraceno, Guido Carli, etc. There were many contradictions between such representations and the real concrete tendencies. There was possibly also one contradiction that could never be resolved. The cultural and theoretical influence of the Quaderni Rossi was due to the tight relation between our intellectual work and our political activities. The rupture with the Unions should have meant organising as a political group. Instead what developed was a large divide between the themes we were tackling on one hand and our political practice. From then on we tackled grand themes but did so on the basis of a rather limited political activity. The latter was only enough to avoid becoming 'intellectuals' in the pejorative sense, but it also provoked great illusions.

Our contacts with workers at that point became very important, as in the case of Porto Marghera (his particular relation with the Quaderni Rossi was brief due to the rupture of ’63). After the break with the unions it became more difficult to keep our contacts with workers, although we did keep some. There was for example one man whom we referred to as our 'collective worker' . We also looked for others but it was not easy.

What are the differences and analogies, positive aspects and limitations of enquiry on one hand and co-ricerca on the other?

There were harsh disputes over this question. In a seminar in Meina (to which Panzieri was absent because abroad) there was a dispute between those that favoured so called “enquiry from above” and “enquiry from below”. The latter was favoured by Romano and others. In reality this was an abstract dispute between two sociological approaches.

Co-ricerca is a fundamental method, but it requires being in a condition where you are pursuing enquiry with workers that you are organizing or workers that are already organized and therefore in either case strictly related to political work. As a small group we were not in the position to do this and neither were the unions that were unable to organize workers in FIAT. Furthermore, we were interested in reaching out not only to those affiliated to FIOM, but other ordinary workers as well. With the latter one could not pursue co-ricerca since we did not have a common project.

We therefore adopted traditional research methods. The dispute was abstract precisely because we were not in the condition to pursue co-ricerca. If the conditions are there, this is clearly the best method. If instead you are external to the real situation, then traditional means are the first you pursue to acquire knowledge of the situation, including quantitative questionnaires (of which data must nevertheless always be approached with a critical eye).

Panzieri’s presence allowed us to learn from sociologists and scholars such as Alessandro Pizzorrno, Franco Momigliano, Luciano Gallino, who used to come to our seminars. Gallino was a factor of synthesis. He elaborated an exemplary Marxist analysis of the class situation and of everything else, and in some way moved us forward. Now Gallino has somewhat returned to this approach. His trajectory has been varied, yet his last publications have been following this approach.

What emerges out of your comparison of enquiry and co-ricerca is the question of subjectivity. How was the question of the subjectivity within the group of the Quaderni Rossi, in the context of the wider class situation, confronted at that time?

There are two phases to this. Before ’62 and the explosion of the struggle in FIAT, we were concerned with the situation in FIAT and did not look at the wider picture as yet. The working class was in conflict and what we did was to see the conditions on the basis of which this subjectivity could translate itself into struggle. In ’62 onwards, the struggles in Turin as well as other parts of Italy (where these had already been going on) erupted. Here, the question of the relationship between collective subjectivities and political strategies became crucial. At the time we did not confront it appropriately. In my view, those that went on to develop Classe Operaia deducted a subjectivity of an anti-capitalist working class that went beyond capital that was idealistic. Those that did not believe in this went on criticizing the strategies of the unions. Panzieri passed away too early because in my view he could have been an element of synthesis between these two positions. He was the one that decided the break with the comrades that developed Classe Operaia despite the fact that he was the one that understood them best and was closest to them. He did not agree with their position. He considered Tronti’s position as idealistic, more like Bruno Bauer than Karl Marx.

It is a matter of fact that these two groups then took different paths. We went on criticizing the unions and organizing workers, for example in Olivetti where workers pursued a battle through the unions, while Classe Operaia took another route.

There is a question that emerges in the relationship between subjectivity and project. Either subjectivity is taken as a matter of fact, with its own characterisation, its strength, its capability of being against, and can be a hypothesis, or it is taken as something that develops and transforms. In the latter case, how does the category of a project relate to the question of subjectivity?

What I can say is that subjectivity must be real; it is not something that is construed by the vanguard, by the party. Subjectivity is born from class contradictions yet it is most often unorganized, contradictory, and it expresses a push that is either revolutionary or in any case leading to transformation. The task of the party is to translate this push into a project, hence of structuring the elements within it and to propose this at the level of the masses. From a theoretical point of view, my position is that Mao’s strategy is the only valid strategy, because Lenin had a very strong leaning resembling that of Kautsky on the role of the vanguard, whilst the answer given by Mao is the most realistic.

In the case of the Italian situation, but also more generally in the communist tradition (possibly less so in the Maoist dimension), what emerges are groups (either small or big) in which the dialectics and the growth of a critical activity and the confrontation between different positions give rise to fractures. For example, in Italy, this has been a large handicap for the possibility of developing a political project. If one looks at the history of the ‘50s onwards, the dimensions of certain types of proposals of transformations and revolution are always crossed by ruptures within groups that while fragmenting - surely motivated by theoretical differences and strategies pursued - in reality however abandon one of the main problems, that is, how one accumulates enough strength to have a project that will have an impact. Maybe Mao, at least in a part, had the capacity to make a break and at the same time re- use a new synthesis. While the project of capital manages to utilize its differences and reach a synthesis that brings it forwards in terms of a project, why do you think that those who are seeking to develop an alternative are unable to use the differences that develop in a synthesis within one project?

The difference between the capitalist class and the working class reaching unity through a common project is that capital has power to conserve and manage. This is a fundamental means of unity. When you do not have this, an important condition is missing for the achievement of such a unity.

There are also political-cultural factors. Whilst in social democratic countries groups of the far left were either Leninist or indeed Stalinist, in Italy where there was a large communist party, and few small groups were either Leninist or Stalinist. Smaller groups were dominated by intellectuals who believed in a rupture not because sectarian but due to the love for an idea, and therefore also conflict. The embedded nature of the class added to the tendencies of such intellectuals to hold on to their ideas and sacrifice the organisation as a consequence. This attachment to an idea meant a feeble relationship with the class. Furthermore, the aim behind the Quaderni Rossi was to identify the means through which revolution could be achieved in advanced capitalist societies. We were in the context of an enquiry, not a predefined position to defend. Any research hypothesis that emerged led to the development of a small organization that followed.

For what concerns the Chinese Communist Party that may be true for the first phase. It was not the case afterwards when Mao succeeded in overcoming the internal dialectics. Earlier, adversaries were given over to the police faithful to Chiang Kai-Shek and so forth. The problem represented itself after the taking of power. Mao understood that the contradictions internal to the party should be fought at the level of mass politics, translating itself most possibly into a civil war. The Cultural Revolution was indeed a civil war. On the one hand, it was a genial intuition. However, it failed. There is no possible answer to the question of how to confront such issues under the dictatorship of the proletariat. Mao tried. This meant a struggle that was much harsher but not bureaucratic. It involved physical elimination, and yet not by the state. What emerged were moments of armed conflict internal to a society. This is certainly very different from anything else that was tried.

You have already cited some important figures for your development. Overall, who are your main influences?

I have already cited Panzieri, Marx, Mao, Lenin. There have probably been many more that have influenced me in other ways, since I can say to have more or less taken up sociology as a profession. There are a series of authors that must have had an influence on my political activities if indirectly. For example Max Weber is an important reference point also on a political level. His analysis of the emergence of the Soviet Union was prophetic. It offers instruments for a critical understanding of Soviet society that are not of an anti-communist tendency.

Weber and Herbert Simon and a few others from so called 'bourgeois social science'. Marx distinguished between bourgeois economics i.e. Ricardo and vulgar economics. Even Panzieri in the last work he pursued, a seminar in ’64, distinguished between bourgeois social science, which he argued has important elements of truths, and a large part of sociological literature that is of the vulgar type.

The specificity of the struggles and militancy in Turin

The specificity of the militant movement of Turin I cannot say really. Of the struggle in Turin I can. I will highlight two aspects. The first was the history of the Union movement in Turin, for instance in the 1970’s. Turin had a rupture in the unionisation of workers unlike any other city. Even in Milan CGIL scaled down, strikes did not succeed, but there was an element of continuity in the organization.

The unions in Turin instead had to reconstruct their relations with workers completely. Even in the periods of struggle in FIAT, whether for national or international agreements the first strikes never succeeded. In Emilia you had a situation where 90% of blue collar workers were unionized. You knew that the strike would work, and often it was not pursued because the employers knew that it would have had succeeded. The lack of strikes was not due to particular right wing tendencies of the unions, but it was due to the fact they had a platform, and employers knew that the strike would have succeeded. Therefore there was no need of going ahead with it. In Turin it has always been very different. It is by no chance that the delegates were born here in Turin, in so far as the unions in Turin had to tackle the question of organizing and its relation with the masses. Struggles here are less characterised by routine. Even during times of powerful unions you had strikes that failed whereas at other times you may have had the opposite where the masses outdo the unions.

The other element concerns FIAT and not Turin in general (even though it influences the rest) concerns the class composition i.e. the 'operaio oassa' (mass worker). I was able to measure the shift in subjectivity thanks to my engagement with the unions in FIAT since the ‘50s. Going to the gates and speaking to workers while distributing the leaflets I could understand that which then occurred from ’68 onwards. One could see the emergence of a class conscience, of a push that was also antagonist, and a daily consciousness of things. There was also an unfortunate tendency that saw agreements as being all the same. The unions made good agreements, but there was a tendency to see them as a failure for workers. The idea that the unions were on the employers’ side never went away. Furthermore, also the quality of the union cadres that came out of the struggle in FIAT was low, except for those who were involved in union special training courses.

We did some training. The unions did some training but in a manner that was quite superficial. Within this context however there was a group that had formed around Ivan Oddone, a psychologist of work that was amongst the first that with CGIL started an Occupational Health and Safety campaign in the 1960s. This campaign included the analysis of new diseases linked to Taylorism. He also contributed to the modern form of worker delegates.

Although quite efficient, the concept of the mass worker is not ideal in my view. A unionist called Gianni Marchetto criticises the theory of Antonio Negri ironically.[3] As a young immigrant he began as an 'operaio sociale' (social worker or diffuse worker), striking only to break window panes. Then he became 'mass worker', deskilled in a large factory, finally he became 'operaio di mestiere' (manual worker). Describing his experience as a union cadre organising 'operai massa' he said: “when I was secretary of the league in Mirafiori I met two: Massa Giacomo, who was of maintenance and unionised, and Massa Giuseppe, who was a militant working at the automotive department and not unionised. And then he asked how we could explain that strikes by one shift in Mirafiori were always more successful than those of another despite the similar class composition. He explained that it was because the subjectivity of the individual worker counts. In shift A there were certain workers and in shift B there were others. This is an important theoretical contribution for the relationship between class consciousness and subjectivity.

On Cesare Del Piano

I know of Del Piano mostly from what others have told me.[4] Turin presented a rare case where there was not only unity between metal workers, which existed everywhere, but there was also unity on progressive policies of the confederations. It is enough to mention the self reduction of the electricity bills, which was considered as a scandal also by the CGIL national centre. The unity between the three unions essentially meant that between Pugno and Del Piano, hence CGIL and CISL. De Piano is an extraordinary figure. He was a catholic that, thanks to his honesty on the one hand and lucidity on the other, arrived at the most advanced positions. By giving space to industrial unions and also attempting to set up local councils (consigli di zona)[5] Del Piano was decisive, in a good situation and had strong influence, also due to the fact his authority was not disputed within the union.

Operaismo develops a new concept of the 'operaio massa' and brings to light workers' reaction to a culture developed within the working class of scientific innovation, productivity, and so forth. It nevertheless failed to construct a political project around such insight.

I agree. I want to underline the fact that the Operaismo of the Quaderni Rossi did not concern manual workers in the strict sense. I am thinking of Romano who from the very beginning suggested we should replace the concept of operaio with that of producer. Panzieri was not happy with this. Beyond the word itself, the issue was that Romano, like myself, was focusing on wage work in general. He furthermore had a particular interest in the intermediate cadres. His first interview in FIAT was with them. Out of this came a character that was full of contradictions. Therefore it was not the kind of Operaismo that disregarded anybody that did not wear a blue suit.

1. Mondo Operaio was a theoretical journal by the PSI. Panzieri was chief editor between ’57 until ’58.

2. Federazione Impiegati Operai Metallurgici. Metal workers union of the CGIL.

3. Marchetto was a FIOM worker who became an executive.

4. Del Piano was a unionist for CISL. For many years he was Secretary of the Confederation of CISL Piedmont, and then moved in the National Confederation of CISL.

5. Consigli di Zona. An attempt to develop at the territorial level what had been established in the enterprises with the councils of delegate committees (Ccnsigli di delegate).

Translated by generation-online, October 2006.

*Edited from the original version with the permission of the interviewee.

little site banner