Beyond Workers' Inquiry

ECOLOGIES | Books  }

Louis Althusser / October 16, 2021
The mass-produced automobile brought about shifts in spatial relations, the reproduction of labour power, and consciousness—shifts that completely overhauled strategies of bourgeois class struggle. 2840 words / 11 min read

Photo:The entrance to the Alfa Romeo Portello plant in via Gattamelata in the 1960s, unknown author

The following is an extract from the first chapter “The ‘What’ in ‘What is to be Done?’” of Althusser’s What is to be Done? edited and translated by G. M. Goshgarian, published by Polity Press. Except for links to the online edition of Marx and Engels Collected Works all notes are the translator’s.

Lenin was in the habit of saying that the working class must take the greatest possible account of what goes on outside it, in the bourgeois class, not just to know itself, but to constitute itself as a conscious class (that is, as a class endowed with a party that orients, unifies and organizes its struggle). It cannot be satisfied with knowing what is going on in its own domain, that is, with knowing itself; it must also see and understand what is going on on the other side. This is not a question of simple curiosity; it is a question of grasping the two poles of the antagonism at the same time in order to be able to grasp the antagonism as that which constitutes the two poles, in order to grasp the class struggle as that which constitutes the classes by dividing them into classes. Otherwise, the working class will be penned within its own horizon, that of its exploitation, of its revolts with no morrow, doubled by its utopian dreams; and it will, in this captivity, be subject to all the pressures and manoeuvres of the bourgeois class struggle.

To succeed in grasping the antagonism, to succeed in understanding the mechanism of this class struggle that divides the classes into classes, mere ‘self-consciousness’ is not enough. Italian television recently interviewed Alfa Romeo workers at their workplace.1 These were vanguard workers with extraordinarily high consciousness. The audience saw everything they did at work; the workers said everything they knew. They were workers in a separate workshop who held a simple place in Alfa Romeo’s immense labour process. Isolated though they were, in their shop, in their work, they had nevertheless managed to arrive at an idea of the structure and mechanisms of the process of production in their plant, and not just the labour process in their own plant, but also the subcontracting going on outside it, and even Alfa Romeo’s economic and financial policies, its investments, markets, and so on. These workers had even acquired – this is extremely unusual – a certain consciousness of the effects produced on them by this system: on their own working conditions, their exploitation, the relation between this exploitation and the conditions for the reproduction of their own labour-power (their housing, their families – the wife and children – school, social security, transport, their car, and so on). They had even understood, to a certain extent – this is still more surprising – that their isolation as well as the ignorance of company policies in which the monopoly Alfa Romeo keeps its workers, including ignorance of its organization and its division of labour, were part and parcel of the conditions of their exploitation, since this isolation and ignorance were one of the forms of the bourgeois class struggle, intended to keep them from attaining accurate collective consciousness, and thus from carrying out effective industrial action or political action.

Thus these workers had gone a very long way in ‘developing their consciousness’ (dans leur ‘prise de conscience’)2 – and I insist that what is involved here is a case of exceptional ‘consciousness’, incomprehensible outside the context of the struggles of the Italian metalworkers, who have, for years, ventured well beyond the bounds of traditional trade union demands (the defence of wage levels, the fight against speed-up, and so on) in order to intervene in the organization of the labour process and workers’ control over it, and even in the investment policies of the trust that employs them. In France, we are far, very far, from having an example of this kind.

These workers had gone a very long way in ‘developing their consciousness’ and what is involved here is a case of exceptional ‘consciousness’, incomprehensible outside the context of the struggles of the Italian metalworkers.

Yet the very same workers who displayed this extraordinary capacity for analysis ran up against an insuperable problem. While they knew what was going on in their plant and trust, they had no comparable idea of what was really going on at Fiat, that is, in the same branch of production; and they had absolutely no idea of what was going on in the other branches of production in Italy: metalworking, textiles, the petrochemical industry, mining, agriculture, transport, the financial trusts and the trusts that control commercial distribution, and so on. It is, however, absolutely impossible to arrive at an idea of what determines what goes on at Alfa Romeo unless one has as comprehensive an idea as possible of Alfa Romeo’s position not just in the production of automobiles, and the market for them, but also in metalworking, textiles, the plastics industry, the petrochemical industry and the rubber industry – industries directly relevant to automobile production, because they provide the automobile industry with their finished products, which serve as the raw material for the construction of vehicles. And it is absolutely impossible to grasp what determines the existence and importance of automobile production in a nation’s production without understanding the specific place that automobile production holds in economic production overall, that is, in the ensemble of existing branches of production. This place, in turn, can be grasped only if one is prepared to consider the competition among capitals seeking the highest possible rate of profit, which explains why capital is invested in the automotive sector (rather than others) and, at the same time, the place that this investment holds in the bourgeoisie’s overall economic strategy, inseparable from the bourgeois class struggle.

While it may seem surprising, studies have proven that the mass production of automobiles, which were once an object of curiosity and a luxury item for the rich – that the production of automobiles at comparatively low prices for the masses, hence for the workers, a mass production consciously inaugurated by Ford in America, involved a complete overhaul of the previous strategy of the bourgeois class struggle.

The mass production of automobiles, the production of automobiles at comparatively low prices for the masses, hence for the workers, involved a complete overhaul of the previous strategy of the bourgeois class struggle.

At one time, a factory-owner built housing for workers around his factory. This was common practice not just in mining (settlements of miners’ cottages), but in metalworking and textiles as well (workers’ estates). This solution had its advantages: the workers did not need transport (= wasted time) and arrived at their jobs fresh and rested in the morning. The boss had his own shops, schools, church and parish priest on the premises. He could exploit his little world twice over, both at work and also by selling it clothing and the means of subsistence. Above all, he could keep a close eye on his little world, which he had at his mercy thanks to exploitation at work, dependency and profits in consumption, and his priests and schoolteachers.

This double concentration in one and the same place – concentration in the labour process and concentration in the maintenance and reproduction of labour-power – had, however, serious disadvantages as well. The first was that it was impossible to augment the workforce without investing in the construction of housing, and so on. The boss ran up against this first limit and, above all, a second: this double concentration multiplied exchanges between workers and lent them formidable force in the struggle.

Marx stresses the role that the concentration of workers in the production process plays in ‘raising consciousness’ of class interests and in the organization of collective struggles.3 When concentration in the labour process goes hand-in-hand with concentration in the habitat, when workplace and habitat are practically identical, and when none but the workers in a factory live together in the same residential zone, it is easy to imagine the explosive effects that this double concentration can have on ‘raising consciousness’ and on struggles. It is no accident that, in the history of workers’ struggles, miners were long in the vanguard, followed by dockers and metalworkers, and then by textile workers.

In the face of this grave peril, which jeopardized its exploitation, the bourgeoisie altered its strategy. It abandoned its old practice of building ‘workers’ estates’ around the factory, gave up all the advantages that it had reaped from this, and took a different tack.

More and more workers were needed. To recruit them, there was no depending on the kind of ‘urban planning’ that provided accommodation in workers’ estates, miners’ cottage settlements, and the like. It was necessary to be able to recruit any worker anywhere at will, even if he lived at some distance or even very far away; and it was also necessary to be able to ‘play’ on market fluctuations so as to augment or diminish the workforce in a particular branch of production or shift it from one branch of production to another. Workforce ‘mobility’ became a sine qua non for the development of imperialist capitalism, for its ‘play’ on capital investments and transfers of those investments. Capital had finally to be completely liberated from the old fetters represented by investments of fixed capital in workers’ estates located around the factory. The mobility of capital, subject to the search for maximal profit (on the basis of the average rate of profit), necessitated the mobility of the workforce. Concretely, this meant that the workforce was freed of the obligation to live in a particular habitat tied to proximity to the factory. It became obvious that – a reason inseparable from the first reason (for, when the bourgeoisie sets out to reap the greatest possible profit from exploitation, which is class struggle, it must simultaneously ensure the greatest possible social and political security for that exploitation) – it became obvious that, in order to counter the workers’ struggle that was emerging as a result of this double concentration, workers had to be scattered as widely as possible. It was already more than enough that they were brought together in the concentration of the labour process. They should not, to make things worse, also be brought together around the factory in a workers’ estate!

These are not imaginary variations, but facts, and I am by no means arbitrarily imputing motives to the bourgeoisie. We have a great many texts, declarations and studies written by its own specialists that prove that it was perfectly conscious of the class character of its ‘turnabout’ on the political matter of workers’ housing – that it was conscious of the dangers this ‘turnabout’ was meant to stave off and of the effects it expected from this turnabout. Naturally, this ‘turnabout’ on the matter of the workers’ habitat, which left the choice of their accommodations entirely up to them (go live wherever you like, I don’t care to know anything about it), simultaneously exposed workers to the logic of a whole series of complex, seemingly aleatory processes in which urban ground rent played the leading role, alongside the most cynical politics (Haussmann demolishing workers’ neighbourhoods in the centre of Paris in order to open up broad avenues in which post-1848 rifles and artillery could ‘work wonders’). This contributed to driving the mass of workers into the suburbs, which had gradually gained ground at the expense of cultivated fields. Finance capital, urban ground rent, and politics thus succeeded in transforming the class characteristics of the neighbourhoods of capitalism’s new urban planning. Pushed into distant suburbs, the workers found what accommodations they could. When the bourgeoisie realized that, concentrated as they were in production, they were still too dangerous, it set out to ‘change their attitude’; that is, put baldly, to invite them to desert the class struggle by interesting them in proprietorship – by allowing them to buy their little houses and gardens in the suburbs. The result was the politics of the detached house, explicitly conceived of as, and, without the least dissimulation, openly declared to be, essential to the depoliticization of the working class. The result was the working-class property owner, with all the hours given over to do-it-yourself chores in house and garden, far from any ‘café’ and, what is more, stuck with long-term loans and stuck in his little family. What better guarantee for capitalism could anyone dream of?

The result was the politics of the detached house, explicitly conceived of as, and, without the least dissimulation, openly declared to be, essential to the depoliticization of the working class.

This is where we come back to the automobile. In the grand transformation of the bourgeois politics of labour-power, the automobile was clearly and consciously conceived of by Ford, who pioneered mass production of it, as a product for the masses, hence for the workers. It was conceived of as an indispensable means of enabling workers – living wherever they happened to find lodging and therefore, usually, far from the factory, and even farther than from the factory nearest them, perhaps, if their first lay-off, and so forth – to transport themselves from their homes to the factory gates and present themselves there about as fresh as they would have been if they had lived in the immediate vicinity. It is of no importance that there exist factories for the rich (Lancia, Ferrari) and factories such as Alfa Romeo, somewhat more specialized in cars that are, as a rule, beyond ordinary workers’ [ouvriers] means (and even that no longer holds since the Alfasud). Cars render the same services to other workers [travailleurs] – white-collar workers, supervisory personnel, and so on – who also live far from the company where they work. What is important is that Ferrari, Lancia and even Alfa Romeo exist on the basis constituted by Fiat and its analogues (General Motors, Ford, Citroën, Welter-Meunier, and so on), that is to say, a gigantic imperialist enterprise, implanted throughout the world, whose automotive sector is all but exclusively devoted to turning out mass-produced cars for mass consumption: in other words, popular cars which workers can usually afford.

This reality, which some fail to perceive even today – namely, that the automobile is an integral part of the means of transport for labour-power, that is, of its maintenance and availability as exploited labour, just as the means of transport serve, among other things, to transport commodities to market, thus making possible the ‘commodity’s transformation into a commodity’4 – this reality finds its explanation not in ‘technical progress’ or ‘rising productivity’, but in the history of a phenomenal about-face in the strategy of the bourgeois class struggle. This is something that not even the most conscious workers at Alfa Romeo could know. Not only could they not get beyond the limits of their own company, whose structure and mechanism they understood quite well; not only could they not know as much about what was going on at Fiat (whose investment strategy and strategy of multiproduction on a global scale was beyond their ken); not only could they not know what was going on in other branches of Italian domestic production; they were also obviously unaware of the crucial role that the mass production of cars had played in capitalism’s strategic transformation with regard to labour-power in the context of the bourgeois class struggle.

There we have, then, what happened and what failed to in this extraordinary Italian television documentary in which workers at Alfa Romeo talked about their work, their exploitation, their capitalist company, the mechanisms of its production process and of its investment policy, and also about its way of waging the class struggle in the factory, the riposte to which was an exceptionally vigorous working-class struggle.

What is to be Done? is published by Polity. New Socialist £5 and above subscribers can get a 20% discount.

  1. Althusser is no doubt referring to the documentary film ‘Appunti sul lavoro di fabbrica: una vita in fabbrica’ [Notes on factory work: a life in the factory], filmed by RAI 2’s ‘Cronaca’ television crew on Alfa Romeo’s Arese-Portello site and first aired on 28 December 1977. 

  2. This phrase occurs in a report that Georges Marchais, General Secretary of the French Communist Party, delivered on 27 April 1978 to the Party’s Central Committee. ‘Georges Marchais: Avancer sur la voie du XXIIe Congrès’ [Georges Marchais: Advance down the Path of the 22nd Congress], L’Humanité, 28 April 1978, p. 7. 

  3. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 5 (n.p.: Lawrence and Wishart Electric Book: 2010), pp. 86-9 available online. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 6, pp. 492-3. available online 

  4. Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 29, p. 24. available online. Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 31, p. 467. available online


Louis Althusser

Louis Althusser (1918-90) was a leading Marxist philosopher and an influential figure in the French Communist Party. He taught philosophy for many years at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. His many books include History and Imperialism, For Marx, Reading Capital (with Étienne Balibar and others) and Lenin and Philosophy.