Interview between Roberto Ciccarelli and the philosopher Mario Tronti on the occasion of his 90th birthday: life, politics, and conflict
(il manifesto, 24th July 2021)
Revolution may have gone into exile, but it seeks the light of day in its sleepless night. Last Wednesday 21st July, Mario Tronti turned ninety as he cultivates the political dynamism that courses through the life of one of the greatest contemporary philosophers. A tireless labour. In the autumn, he will publish two more books.
Rossana Rossanda wrote The Comrade from Milan. Pietro Ingrao called his own autobiography I Wanted the Moon. What does Mario Tronti think at 90?
I think of anything but of writing an autobiography. I am allergic to this literary form. I have read many autobiographies, some of which I read with enthusiasm – including the two you mention. But Rossana and Pietro were well-known public figures, who had been protagonists of various events, they had much to remember and to tell. I am an unknown public figure. I have no memories that would interest others. At most a few journal or newspaper titles, and a single successful youthful book that had, to make a risky analogy, the same fate as Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye – at which point you are that and nothing else.
Workers and Capital…
Yes. My advice is always: don’t write a successful book as a young man, because you remain imprisoned in a single pigeonhole.
I think that the force of Rossanda’s and Ingrao’s stories comes from the encounter of their personal existence with the struggle for communism in the twentieth century. You too have reflected long on the greatness of that century. In what way do you read your own life in relation to politics?
My autobiography should be read entirely in my writings which, looking at them from a distance, have even been excessive and obsessive. But to properly understand the course of a political and intellectual life, one needs to order chronologically not only books and articles, but between one book and another, one essay and another, all the articles, discussion and conference papers, and interviews. What brings them together is the same style of writing that marks the same form of thinking. They walk along the same tightrope, less in search of consistency than efficacy. And this because the discourse is totus politicus, carried out from the same partisan standpoint, critical of all that is, aiming at overthrowing the order of things, and yet – and I know that this is the least well-understood aspect – measured against the opportunities that contingency offers up. This is what I would like to discuss.
In a recent intervention on the inheritance and timeliness of Operaismo, Antonio Negri spoke of a ‘Tronti Enigma’. According to him, in your work there is an unresolved tension between the conflict of being within and against capitalism, which you taught us in Workers and Capital, to the being within the (communist) party with your proposal of the autonomy of the political through which capital is to be dominated. Do you recognise yourself in such an enigma?
What you call an enigma is a path. Operaismo took up an extremely short period of my research. There is a before and after. The experience of Operaismo gave me a fundamental method: the partisan viewpoint. After this, then, followed the application to different contents: not only factory and society, also politics and institutions, history and contingency, and more, ones’ own form of existence which demands a coherence between ones’ lived existence, ones’ action and thinking. That is active coherence, not banal repetition – which is to say, continuity and leaps, never breaks and repudiations; rather a case of adaptation to changing objective conditions. I have always spoken of a society split in two, in every period and various forms. For this reason, I was fascinated by the emergence of the feminism of difference, which I always followed with great intellectual curiosity. The idea of the two that breaks the eternal male one of the human was a theoretical break in the emancipatory paradigm on the path to female liberation. Then there is the broader discussion. Modern politics is not polis, not agora, as people cheerily love to say. It is a relationship of force, it is power against power, it is belonging to a side standing against another side. Those who have failed to understand this, Weber would say, are still political children. Franky, I prefer those who pretend to be children, than those who are. When you do politics, you are called to dominate the demon of history, because you are dealing with Kant’s crooked timber of humanity. The great history of the workers’ movement has taught us that this can be done, it has to be done without war. Those who have understood class war as violence have made a profound mistake, whether they be leaders, regimes, or groups. It is necessary to use bourgeois civilisation to impose workers’ Kultur, which died on the cross of its Good Friday but that requires the Easter of resurrection, reincarnating itself in a world of work that is now fractured, dispersed, forgotten, alienated, and yet is still alive. This will not happen thanks to spontaneity from below: here lies my refusal of all Luxemburgism. It is a world that must be reunited socially, subjectified politically, motivated with passion, rearmed theoretically. This is the light of the day that I see in the sleepless night of my anthropological pessimism.
Lenin wrote What is to be Done? How does one answer such a question today?
Lenin’s ‘what is to be done?’ unfortunately went missing too soon, just as to my mind too soon was the experiment dropped. Seventy years are a single breath in the longue dureé of historical processes. Perhaps one should have resisted and known how to change, but reformers there, as we well-know reformists here, were and will always be nothing but feeble chefs cooking for the cuisine of the present, each time inevitably overwhelmed by the impact of things. We should instead accept our immense errors, those of the Western workers’ movement who, so as not do ‘what the Russians did’, ended up doing as ‘the Americans did’. Look at today’s unworthy heirs: all are crazy about Biden, as they were yesterday for Clinton and Obama. No longer is it Americanism or Fordism, but Americanism and Atlanticism. I recall with nostalgia infinite discussions at the Gramsci Institute and elsewhere, about the concept of transition, the passage from capitalism to socialism, with the works of Dobb, Sweezy, Schumpeter in our hands. Today one speaks of an ecological transition, a digital transition, and entire ministries are established for the purpose. Any new Left that was to make it into government should start by establishing a ministry for the political transition from this economico-political social formation to another, an opposed one. Reform and revolution shouldn’t be opposed as in the past. Only with the threat of overcoming what once was known as the constituted order, not through shouting about it but putting into practice with the relative force for the achievement of the end, do you force your adversary to concede systemic reforms to your side. This is what took place during the twentieth century’s Trente Glorieuse, in the presence of the accursed USSR. Paradoxically something similar is being repeated today. There is an opening, concessions are made because of the fear continues to come from the East, in economic, technological, and ideological competition. They call it a contemporary authoritarianism, in truth they fear it for the little they recall of a past that won’t pass.
But the past that won’t pass is ghostly and struggles to open itself to the future. What happens to the ‘what is to be done’?
Unfortunately, the proposal of a new ‘what is to be done?’ is today in serious difficulty. For this question is typically asked of an antagonistic subject already in play. That is precisely what we are lacking. We live in finsteren Zeiten, ‘dark times’, like Brecht’s. With one substantive difference: that these are artificially enlightened times, who hide the night with the illumination of streetlights. But night is here, even during the day, only that it can’t be seen. The lights of the modern and postmodern world, the most advanced that have ever existed for humanity, are blinding. And a pandemic is not enough to extinguish them. On the contrary, it risks being a way to substitute the old with more powerful lights, as it seems to me is happening. In the best case scenario we have regressed from Lenin to Marx, from the revolution that needs to be organised to the revolution to be hoped for with strong thoughts. The ‘what is to be done?’ is impossible; what remains possible is a ‘what is to be thought?’ They cannot take this from us. And perhaps it is from here that we must begin again. But we must be conscious that we live at home as exiles.
What does that mean?
Currently I find the category of exile more appropriate than that of exodus. Because we who wanted to ‘change the world’ are like internal emigrants, with rights but no recognition in the Hegelian sense, confined within this world that has changed independently: the world of the market and of money, of technology heading in post-human directions, with communication taking the place of thought, of the individual without the person, of the mass without the people, of the people without the class. I’ll stop here in the hope that the rest of our conversation will enable us to overturn this apparently closed path of thinking, which is wittingly anti-progressivist.
Let’s do that then. What are the questions that a communist must ask himself today?
There are many. To begin with the first: can one still call oneself a communist? I will answer immediately with a yes, and I will try to explain it in my own way. For those who find themselves living badly, uneasily, in conflict within a capitalist society, communism is indispensable. I can find no other word, no other concept, no other position that is able to say with equal well-founded precision what it is to be against, not simply politically but in general. Certainly, today Marx’s criticism of all that exists is not enjoying much success. Today in the field of contestation, criticism is of some of the things that are and are not working properly. Such criticism is taken on a case-by-case basis but should be inscribed in a contrast with the systemic whole. Otherwise, each of those separate things can be more or less easily integrated into the logic of an ordering function that changes merely so as to conserve.
Why communists and not socialists?
I don’t think socialism is a word easier to adopt than communism. It is perhaps less frightening. But this is not an advantage, it’s a fault. I have one certainty: that only the communists really frightened the capitalists. No one else: not the ‘68ers, the movements, the operaisti, the autonomists, the extra-parliamentary groups, even less the armed groups that disastrously sullied that name. Communists promoted ‘storming heaven’ in practice, not only in theory, in the attempt to construct socialism, even if heroically only in one country. They did so by forming a power-bloc that shook the basis of capitalist world domination for the first and perhaps last time. They failed, they made several errors in the attempt, encircled and embattled, but this is not the proof of the failure of the idea. Socialists, having become democrats, no longer even tried. To overcome that assault a Third World War was necessary, the Cold War, which was ideologically extremely hot.
You have said: ‘Thinking by extremes, acting shrewdly’. What does this mean today, at a time when, as you have written in Dello spirito libero [Of the free spirit]: ‘do we no longer need the hope that the enemy can be definitively beaten?’
An enormity of urgent things remains to be done – that is the hope, Ernst Bloch’s concrete utopia at the time of all spent passions. Desperation lies in there being no one visible to do them. ‘Thinking by extremes, acting shrewdly’ should be read in that sense. That is how to understand my contested, and always marginal political standpoint. I look to where I can see even the smallest possible agentic force. Not only from the idea of communism but also from the practice of communist organisation I learnt, once and for all, that being minoritarian is useless. It puts your conscience at rest that you are in the right. But I don’t need to answer to my conscience, but to the needs of my side. My choice of sides is not ethical, it’s political. The choice of the autonomy of the political is another passage, after Operaismo, and is a consequence of that experience. I realised at that point that between workers and capital there was something that stood in the way of the decisive clash. In other words, that the legs of conflict needed to walk on the legs of mediation. That is the other politics, the subjectivity of institutions, the presence of the state-form, the function of the party. I was then fortunate enough to meet along my travels – and it was like love’s lightning strike – the tradition of modern political realism, of great conservative thought, that of the anti-Enlightenment culture of crisis. I found it as useful as was not only the knowledge but in this latter case the sense of belonging to the long subversive history of the subaltern classes. Oliver Cromwell and Thomas Müntzer sit happily alongside one another in my intellectual baggage. How otherwise can you go from being a subaltern to a dominating class? Yes, I know, it’s not easy to grasp. But what can I do, I can’t stop thinking so as make myself more easily understood.
How have you replied in the past and how will you reply to the exploited, the vulnerable, the restless, and the non-docile who ask you how to grasp a revolutionary opportunity?
It is the most difficult question. Because it picks up on one of my personal, existential weaknesses. I call it biblically the ‘thorn in the flesh’. It lies in writing too much, thinking too much thinking and doing, acting, organising too little: I recognise this to be a serious limitation of my by now lengthy political life. I don’t have much longer for my answer. I will focus on how to answer today, conscious that the answer today is much more difficult than it was yesterday and, above all, the day before yesterday. And I don’t know if we still have the space. It’s true that we are in the desert; but why did they ‘make a desert and call it peace’?
Would you like to outline here, for our use and that of future generations, your theses on politics?
Let’s give it a go, with all the incognita involved. I will try to think up some general, classic rules. With my hatred of the postmodern I often find sanctuary among classical categories: I find them far more useful, at least for understanding. We need to see if they also help us for action. If history is not finished, then the Ancient returns. So, the Theses: 1) The Left in government speaks of and practices social cohesion. In contrast, one should put front and centre social conflict. 2) Conflict must be organised politically, with unions, …. 3) One must find a vaccine to defeat once and for all the widespread epidemic of anti-politics. Masks are no longer sufficient to fight its effects, one needs to intervene in the primordial strain, which must be uncovered and attacked in its ends, whether it be political/projected/emotive/vocational. 4) Recover the memories of struggle as principle of education, of pedagogy for the new generations. Enough with demonising the twentieth century. Let’s leave aside the [debate around the] ‘great’ and ‘small’ twentieth century – if only we could have the good fortune of another 1968! The ferocious reaction against the twentieth century was foundational to the age of Restoration that we have been living through since the end of the 1980s. 5) Not a liturgical recitation: women and youths, but an act of will – difference and militancy. 6) Ernesto Laclau pointed the way: construct the people. Alongside this new people, construct new ruling classes, reconstruct the control deck to assure direction with fresh forces, both intellectually and practically. 7) Observe the world. Study, practice, introject geopolitics. Forget sovranismo! Fight to liberate Europe from Atlanticism. Slogan: Free Europe! Turn it into an autonomous bridge between civilisations of East and West, between North and South of the world. And then, there’s another…
It’s the final one, but it has no number because I keep it for myself – the utopia/prophecy, to which I dedicate my last thoughts: communist freedom against bourgeois democracy. I’m sure there’s more than one missing. The space of the newspaper column is exhausted. Please do add freely.
 Rossanda (1924-2020) and Ingrao (1915-2015) held positions of considerable power and influence on the left of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) in the post-war period. Rossanda, in 1951 at the age of 27, was put in charge of the House of Culture of the PCI by the historic party leader Palmiro Togliatti. Ingrao was director of the party daily L’Unità (1947-’57) as well as member of parliament from 1950-1992. He was the central figure for the party’s left current throughout the post-war years. Rossanda’s time as a member of parliament was far briefer, entering in 1962 but cut short in 1968 when she – and a several others – were expelled from the party at the XIIth Party Congress. This due in part to objections to what were considered by the Left to be an insufficiently condemnatory critique of the Soviet invasion following the ‘Prague events’, but ultimately it was the foundation of the newspaper il manifesto, along with Luigi Pintor, Lucio Magri, Valentino Parlato, and others that did for them. Democratic centralism allowed internal debate and criticism – to an extent – but demanded that the party line should be towed in public. (The original title of Rossanda’s book, translated into English by Verso, is: La ragazza del secolo scorso – or the girl from the last century.
 In another interview to celebrate Tronti’s ‘90th, this time in La repubblica, he again takes up this theme of reform versus revolution, and has more choices phrases for reformists: ‘How would you define yourself politically? Tronti: A revolutionary conservative. This is a formula that Enrico Berlinguer used as well.’ What does it mean? Tronti: ‘Revolution is not against tradition; it is itself tradition. I have always fought historicism, the idea that history must always move forward. Since the 1980s history has moved backwards. We have experienced an age of Restoration. I hold dear Togliatti’s phrase: ‘we come from afar and we’re going far’. Is it no longer true? Tronti: ‘Today progressives come from nearby and move a little further’. (‘Un comunista in convento’, 19 July 2021).
 In Tramonto della politica [The Twilight of Politics], 1998, Tronti makes a provocative contrast between the ‘greatness’ of the twentieth century running from the beginning through to the late-1960s, where the masses made their entrance onto world history, threatening the ‘real state of things’; and the ‘small’ one, which is that which followed 1968 and that to his mind never threatened the status quo, and that capitalism was able to easily reabsorb. Tronti is here softening his criticism, without drawing back from the distinction. (The Twilight of Politics will be published by Seagull Books in 2022.)
 Sovranismo is the term used by the ‘populists’ (to use shorthand) – typically, but not only, of the right – to call for an end to elite driven ‘globalism’. Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again is the most obvious example of sovranismo. Tronti opposes globalism and sovranismo in favour of a theory of the great spaces, drawn in part – in a typically provocative appropriation – from Schmitt’s later work. It is such a ‘geopolitics’ that he says we should ‘introject’.