One of the most important trade-union and political leaders of the Italian labour movement, Vittorio Foa (1910-2008), explained the reason for his study on the birth of the labour movement, both Italian and European, at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century by ‘the need for a calm and objective consideration, less burdened by daily tensions, and, if possible, outside current ideological confrontations’. For this reason, Foa sought to examine in depth, ‘in a situation removed from ours in time and space, the relation between labour and power, between workers and capitalists, between the lived present and the imagined future’. When Foa wrote these words we were only at the beginning of the great neoliberal counterrevolution that brought the European labour movement to its knees. Thirty years have passed since then, and the need Foa expressed seems even greater; going back to the beginnings of the labour and trade-union movement can be a great help in understanding the reasons for its enormous regression and its contemporary defeats.
In Italy today we are simultaneously faced with the question of constructing a new left political entity and a social coalition able to interpret and deal with the major transformations engineered by capitalist globalisation, which have fragmented the world of labour and put enormous obstacles in the way of any attempt at social recomposition. Thus the issues that Foa investigated while the major crises of the trade union and the left in Italy were in their early stages have great importance for us today. To understand how the labour movement emerged in Europe and in Italy, through what trade-union, political, and organisational forms it passed, is thus not only valuable from an academic or a generically cultural point of view but also from the political and practical standpoint. This history shows us that social phenomena, especially when they are really major and lasting, cannot be mechanistically derived from the laws of the economy and the market, nor do they simply come out of the political input of organised forces. Instead, they emerge as a reaction to the former and precede the birth of the latter. In Italy and in other parts of Europe, the mutual and cooperative movement anticipated the emergence of labour unions and even more so of left political parties. We would do well to distinguish within the more general concept of mutuality the various forms it has assumed, at least at the beginning of its development.
These are essentially of two types: a) the ‘mutual aid societies’, whose purpose was to assist their members in dealing with unemployment, accidents, illnesses, and old age and death itself; in essence, they were a sort of rudimentary welfare state, without the state, based on the free capacity of organisations of the working classes; and b) ‘cooperatives’, those whose purpose was to defend the worker from high consumer prices (consumer cooperatives) and those which responded directly to the lack of jobs (production cooperatives). In the context of their historical development, at least in the case of Italy, we can now say that the mutual aid societies were absorbed and superseded by the welfare state, except for now, under the impact of the neoliberal offensive; while the cooperatives were adapted to the logic of the private market, even to its financial dimension. In both cases, we can understand why there is now talk again of these forms with the aim of updating them to fit the new conditions within the most serious crisis of European capitalism: the chronic reduction of employment and the privatisation of the welfare state.
They emerged because the industrial proletariat began to develop at the same time as the traditional forms of subsistence and protection characteristic of agrarian life dramatically weakened without new forms typical of industrial life having yet appeared. Moreover, the workers of the first industrial revolution lived and worked in places hardly in communication with the outside world, relatively far from the cities that we would today call, though with another meaning, ‘industrial districts’, spread throughout territories that were still prevalently agricultural. For this reason, historians agree that in its incipient stages mutualism answered to the need to face, through the mechanism of solidarity, the problems that arose more in the sphere of reproduction than in that of production. In this sense, from the start, mutualism was considered a movement for, rather than against.
Nevertheless, the concrete evolution of the conflict between capital and labour prevented the distinction between for and against from appearing in as clear-cut a way in practice as it does in theory. The expectation on the part of the ruling classes that these institutions might function as a clearing house for a potential social conflict was soon disappointed, whether for objective reasons – the innate and ineradicable contradiction between capital and labour – or for subjective reasons of the political incapacity and primitiveness of the economic and political ruling classes. An example is the 1878 strikes of the textile workers in the historic production zone of Biella, which disconcerted the ruling classes to the point that they demanded a parliamentary inquest on labour unrest. The suspicion was that hidden behind the mutual aid society of the textile workers of Croce Mosso there was a hotbed of social subversiveness, if only through affiliation with the socialist First International.
Indeed, in general, the study of these examples of unrest leads us to the conclusion that resistance to the pervasiveness of capitalist organisation and the mutualism that emerged to deal with capitalism’s historical shortcomings were coexisting elements from the outset, which mark a positive ambiguity of the emergent labour movement. A historical reconstruction that wants to establish a chronological succession in an evolutionary sense, going from mutualism through resistance and trade-unionism to the political representation of the world of labour through a party would be too abstract, completely misleading, and impede any deep understanding of the history of the subaltern classes and popular movements.
Moreover, this reading of history, with sharply contrasted stages, is responsible for an excessive rigidity in the albeit necessary distinction between trade-union and political party organisation, of and within the labour movement. This rigidity resulted in a hierarchical separation between trade-union and political functions. Rather than favouring the autonomy of the former from the latter – apart from certain happy moments in the history of the labour movement – and positively influencing the social conflict, this rigidity has led to a divergence between the represented and their representatives at both levels, that is, both at the social and political levels, with the creation of the ‘economic functionary’ and the ‘political functionary’ of the working class.
This separation has historically been clearly manifested in the contrast between the German model and the French model of organisation of the labour and trade union, a division that has mostly to do with the means employed to achieve results: either through the active involvement of the working masses or through the mediation and protagonism of left political forces. It was a contrast reproduced in various ways and forms throughout the last century and also today. Whenever there was an attempt to overcome it in a non-dialectical way, the result was trouble and defeat for the labour movement.
One need only recall the debate that took place in Italy’s trade-union movement and Communist Party (PCI) in the crucial years following the hot autumn of 1969. The question turned around the role of the factory councils, which were new kinds of structures emerging from the class and social confrontation. Their main characteristic was that they gathered together and represented all workers, union members and non-members, regardless of which union. This structure provided very effective forms of direct democracy, combined with forms of representative democracy, modified however by effective and constant control on the part of the voters and by the possibility of revoking mandates. The councils therefore seemed to offer the concrete possibility of refounding the Italian trade union on a unified basis. At the same time, the breadth of the issues they dealt with, which broadened the conflict and collective bargaining well beyond the wage issue, led them to call into question the productive targets and purposes of the company. In this sense, there was not only a potential process of refounding the union but also a politicisation of the social question and the possible launching of a constituent power counterposed to the constituted power.
Various aspects of this experience, not accidentally, recall the experience of management boards, post-war organisms characteristic of the early post-fascist years in Italy, in particular the late 1940s, lending substance to what the left called ‘progressive democracy’, that is, a form of democracy that not only overcame the pre-fascist form but which could have reached the point of overcoming capitalism itself. For this reason, it was indispensable to act at the point where the power of private property was generated, in other words, at the points of production and in the relations of production. For the same reason, this experience was incompatible with the strategic programmes of the Christian Democratic Party and of the USA, and with the division of the world agreed at Yalta. The management board experience was contained, repressed, and then expunged in a process that anticipated and then also imitated that of the expulsion of communists from the Italian government in spring 1947, as also happened in France.
The conditions under which the factory council experience evolved in the early 1970s were obviously completely different from the years of the management councils. However, even with the factory councils we see a capacity for protagonism on the part of the subaltern classes on the direct terrain of contesting the material organisation of production. But neither the union nor the PCI leaderships were able to use the potential of this movement, and it was defeated by the international counter-revolution of neoliberalism in the 1980s, preceded however by the 12-13 February 1978 trade-union conference called by Italy’s major unions, the CGIL, CISL, and UIL.2 The event came to be known as the ‘EUR turn’ after the district in Rome where the conference was held. In it, the unions opted for the ‘policy of sacrifices’, extinguishing or marginalising every impulse towards, or project for, an economic, social, and political alternative.
The general trend that the history of Italy demonstrates, albeit with its own particularities, is that the issue of mutualism, cooperation, and self-management has continued throughout the long trajectory of the labour movement and is being taken up again today, though in a much more limited form3 as defensive choices in the face of neoliberalism and the crisis. The ‘state fetishism’, of which some critics accuse the labour movement in general, has also involved the Italian labour movement, though it has never prevented the recurrent re-emergence of mutualistic and self-management issues and experience. But market fetishism has done more damage than state fetishism, as we see in the complete absorption of the great Lega delle Cooperative in the logic of markets and finance, practicing internal relations identical to those of classic capitalist companies.
In today’s debate, the discussion has been enriched by a new element, that of the ‘commons’, or rather common goods, that is, the determination of things and spaces that can be defined as neither state nor private. It is an idea that is by now international, and it needs to be approached without prejudice or prematurely falling in love with it. First of all, for example, we have to avoid confusing the concept of public with that of state, not because in practice the two things cannot often coincide but because the first term ought above all to indicate the mode of operation and the goal, while the second focuses on ownership. If both terms exclude private property it is not true that all that is state actually functions as public, while it is not necessarily so that what is public needs immediately to be inserted into a state dimension, especially when it appears as a space won through struggles and removed from private property or from the inertia of state bureaucracy.
In Italy, for example, the powerful Cassa Depositi e Prestiti (Deposits and Loans Fund) is a stock company of which 80 per cent is controlled by the Ministry of the Economy and Finance, and yet it acts within a logic of investments that is private and market-oriented, so much so that a mass campaign has been underway for some time to ‘socialise’ it, that is, to make it available for investments in innovative sectors of environmental value and public usefulness. In this way it could become an important financial lever for a job-creating and ecological transformation of the Italian economy. Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, two French scholars who have recently written on the ‘commons’, among other place in the present volume, are, to some extent, presenting a challenging and very stimulating argument. ‘The theme of the commons’, they write, ‘has absolutely no rights of citizenship in the conception of historical development elaborated by Marx, at least not in the greater part of his theoretical work.’ In their view, this is because the communist revolution was conceived as having neither the time nor the desire to recover the common goods made obsolete by history, leading, mainly among Marx’s follower, to the wish to actually suppress the commons. By contrast, the historical reconstruction undertaken by Karl Polanyi takes us in another direction. The great Hungarian sociologist and economist gives us a memorable description of the upheavals occurring throughout the 20th century as a reaction to the process of commodification of people and nature, in the form of a gigantic and organised resistance to the pervasiveness of capitalism.
But can we really pronounce such definitive judgement on Marx’s work? A few lines later, it is true, the authors temper this accusation somewhat, remembering that in his later years Marx returned to the question with different emphases. Actually, all of Marx’s thought has its own evolution, at times even non-linear. The philosopher from Trier remained in constant contact with concrete reality throughout his life, studying it passionately up to his last days. His thinking did not give rise to closed theory but to one that is constantly expanded by new elements. Indeed, one of the worst things that can be done – and which unfortunately has been done, creating irreparable damage to the international labour movement – is to isolate one or another of Marx’s concepts, and, worse, one or another of his phrases, and to absolutise it.
Dardot and Laval do indeed note the exchange of letters Marx had with the Russian revolutionary Vera Zasulich over the Russian rural commune, the obshchina. Given the importance that the issue, in my opinion, has for the discussion around the question of common goods, a short historical digression may be in order. Obshchinawas a term used during the Russian Empire to refer to lands cultivated by peasants in common, in contrast to individual rural property (in Russian khutor). The word derives from the adjective obschchiy, common. This institution was partly scaled back after Stolypin’s agrarian reform (1906-1911) and disappeared with the 1917 Russian Revolution and most especially with the following forced collectivisation of the countryside, one of the fatal errors in the construction of Soviet socialism.
The obshchina had survived the emancipation of the serfs and the abolition of that type of slavery, which occurred with the famous and very controversial reform launched, after much pressure, by Czar Alexander II in 1861. The Russian peasant in his daily work enjoyed little independence from the decisions taken by the obshchina through its governing body, the plenary assembly of the community, the mir. Significantly, this word has a double meaning in Russian: ‘world’ and ‘peace’. And it was in this assembly that disputes could be settled and peace made. Its decisions had to do with the control and redistribution of the common land and forests (if under its jurisdiction), the induction of recruits for state military service (every community had to provide the army with a certain number of men) and the meting out of punishments for minor crimes. The obshchina also was liable for the tax payment of its individual members. Adjacent to the common lands were the individual noble holdings, on which the peasants, even when freed from servitude, were obliged to work without compensation (corvée). This practice is described by Leo Tolstoy in his last novel, Resurrection.
The obshchina is a unique factor in the panorama of 19th-century Europe, and it distinguishes Russia from other civilised nations. The so-called Slavophiles extolled it as the symbol of the cooperation between the classes of Russian society and their spiritual unity. Much more interesting, however, is the way in which the major representatives of Russian populism considered it as a pre-capitalist institution, seeing in it the basis for a possible liberation of the peasantry. In their view, this radical transformation could have come about even reconciling itself with the private ownership of a parcel of land within the rural commune itself and its structures of social government. In a 21 November 1863 letter to Giuseppe Garibaldi, Aleksandr Herzen wrote: ‘The social religion of the Russian people consists of the inalienable right of every member of the obshchina to possess a specific section of land.’ But the appeal ‘To the Young Generation’, distributed in St. Petersburg in the summer of 1861, shortly after the emancipation of the serfs, and which cost several of its authors lifelong banishment to Siberia, went even further: ‘We want each commune to have its allotment, without the existence of private landowners; we do not want land to be sold like potatoes and cabbage.’4In other words, as we might say today, land is a common good.
In response to Zasulich, Marx wrote that she had misunderstood his positions, attributing theories to him that he had never espoused. In fact, Marx said, ‘[…] the analysis in Capital therefore provides no reasons either for or against the vitality of the Russian commune. But the special study I have made of it, including a search for original sourcematerial, has convinced me that the commune is the fulcrum for social regeneration in Russia.’5 Marx was certainly well aware of the dual character of the rural commune, in which the common ownership of land was counterposed to the exclusive dominion by the individual family over the home and the farmyard, but above all to the parcel cultivation of the soil and the private appropriation of its fruits. However, the outcome of this dualism is not given but is determined by the concrete unfolding of the events, by the historical condition in which it exists: ‘either its element of private ownership prevails over its collective element, or the latter will prevail over the former’, Marx wrote. In the preface to the Russian edition of the Manifesto of the Communist Party, written 21 January 1882, Marx is even more direct: ‘[…] can the Russian obshchina, though greatly undermined, yet a form of primeval common ownership of land, pass directly to the higher form of Communist common ownership? Or, on the contrary, must it first pass through the same process of dissolution such as constitutes the historical evolution of the West? The only answer to that possible today is this: If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development.’
As we know, things did not turn out this way, either as regards the revolution in the West or the survival of the obshchina in the process of the agrarian reforms of the new Soviet power. But what needs to be noted here is the rejection of any kind of historical determinism in Marx – in contrast to many of his followers for whom history always has to pass through specific phases – and thus his far from indifferent attitude towards the survival of forms of common ownership in a society dominated by state ownership of the means of production, an attitude no less present in the later reflections of Engels. Engels was to return to this question in the years after Marx’s death, with considerably more doubt that the obshchina could play a positive role. He spoke negatively of an excess of ‘faith in the miraculous powers of the agrarian commune, from which one believed one could expect a social palingenesis’, an error for which he believed Herzen bore responsibility but also Chernychevsky, the author of What Is To Be Done?, whom he greatly appreciated and whose title Lenin was to ‘lift’ for his famous essay. Engels mainly insisted on the need for a Russian revolution, which in the mid-1890s still had not yet arrived on the scene, as well as the indispensable leading role of the western proletariat if the rural commune was to be salvaged within the process of a socialist transformation. But all of this appears to be more the result of disappointment determined by the shape of events than a rejection of Marx’s late reflections on the obshchina.
This voyage through the history of the labour movement is not nostalgic. The forms of productive and social organisation that existed before capitalism or, better, before its complete dominance of every angle of society, do not have to be considered mere relics or, worse, obstacles, on the path of a linear progression between different modes of production. By virtue of their resistance to this totalising dimension of the capitalist system, they can, if updated, also be, or come to be, effective forms of resilience and resistance to this system – on condition that we do not think of reproducing them exactly as they were and are aware that the crisis of modern capitalism is incubating the possibilities both of its transformation – given its protean character – and its overcoming. To express metaphorically what Lewis Carroll wrote: Alice has to go through the looking-glass, not shatter it and then re-assemble it in her own image. And that is what the left has to do to come back into existence.
Dardot, Pierre and Christian Laval, Commun, Essai sur la révolution au 21ème siècle, Paris: Éditions La Découverte, 2014.
Ferraris, Pino, Domande di oggi al sindacalismo europeo dell’altro ieri: quattro leezioni all’Università di Campinas, Rome: Ediesse, 1992.
Foa, Vittorio, La Gerusalemme rimandata: domande di oggi agli inglesi del primo Novecento, Turin: Rosenber & Sellier, 1985.
Gianni, Alfonso, Goodbye liberismo; La resistibile ascesa del neoliberalismo e il suo inevitabile declino, Milan: Ponte alle Grazie, 2009.
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels, India, Cina, Russia, ed. Bruno Maffi, Milan: Il Saggiatore, 2008 (1960).
Venturi, Franco, Il populismo russo, Turin: Einaudi, 1972 (1952).