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“That Secret Fire”: Italo Calvino & the Primacy of Labor

This essay is the first in a short series I'm doing for this blog about the idea of "the party" on the left and its relevance at the current moment, inspired by Bhaskar's post on Jodi Dean's talk, "The Communist Horizon." I start with the writer Italo Calvino and Italian lessons on the party from the fifties.

Italo Calvino’s 1963 novella La Giornata d’Uno Scrutatore (translated into English as The Watcher) is the story of a low-level volunteer with the Partito Comunista Italiano (or PCI) who grows disenchanted with both his organization and the larger structure of parliamentary democracy as he makes a half-hearted attempt to serve as an elections monitor. Assigned to the infamous “Cottolengo Hospital for Incurables,” a Catholic institute run by nuns for the irredeemably disabled and disfigured, the protagonist Amerigo Ormea is assigned by the PCI to contest ballots from residents who lack the capacity to vote for themselves. He is more or less engaged in voter suppression, but not necessarily for unjustifiable reasons: “[E]ver since the vote had become obligatory in the period following the Second World War, hospitals, asylums, and convents had served as great reservoirs of votes for the Christian Democrat part, and at Cottolengo, above all, at each election instances were discovered of idiots being led to vote, or dying old women, or men paralyzed with arteriosclerosis, in any case, people unable to make logical distinctions.” This puts Amerigo in the bad-faith position of suppressing the votes of his society’s most marginalized in the interests of the workers’ party.

With only a small amount of information about the author’s background, it’s hard not to read Calvino himself as the titular watcher who critically examines both the practice of electoral democracy and his own party. Calvino was a member of the PCI for the decade between 1947 and ’57, publishing his resignation after the post-Stalin invasion of of Hungary in 1956. The visible descent of the international communist movement in the fifties into post-Stalin Stalinism disillusioned comrades all over the world, but perhaps nowhere more productively than in Italy. In ’59 when Calvino left Turin for the Americas, Raniero Panzieri was expelled from the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) and moved to Turin, where he would, along with Mario Tronti, develop what would become known as operaismo (workerism), a heterodox current of Marxism that eschewed the official labor movement and its parties. I can find no evidence that the novelist ever met or knew anyone within operaismo, so it is not my real goal to insert Calvino into the historical narrative of the movement, but The Watcher stands on its own as one of the strongest and most developed operaismo critiques I’ve ever read.


First, a little background on the theory. Gail Day describes the basics of operaismo in her book Dialectical Passions: Negation in Postwar Art Theory:

Developed by Panzieri and Mario Tronti, workerist theory argued that the ideas of the established Left — the PCI and the PSI — had stagnated into static, objectivized, and economistic categories, which inflected how the Left operated within the capitalist state (for example, the means of trade union struggle adopted) and determined its idealization of the productivist ideals of Stalinist socialism. In their view, the mainstream Left too readily accepted the framework laid out within capitalism, failing to challenge categories such as work and production; accordingly, they argued, this old Left treated the working class as merely a defensive, ‘reactive’ element within the labor-capital relation. As central players in the New Left’s ‘return to Marx’ and in the recovery of the labor process as a site of theoretical and political activity, the Italian workerists place the working class as the active element.

Ben Trott in his talk at the 2010 Historical Materialism conference in New York describes this process in Tronti’s thought as a “Copernican inversion,” he writes that capital depends on labor, not the other way around. The struggle between worker self-organization and the bosses’ discipline produces new compositions of both capital and labor. This “primacy of labor” meant that the Left was playing into capital’s hands by accepting the forms of organization (trade unions, political parties) produced by the system’s reaction to earlier rounds of revolutionary action.

The Watcher is a story about this inversion, and the discovery of the the primacy of labor at the very historical moment that would provide the basis for a whole line of workerist and post-workerist thought and terms. Throughout the first section of the story, Amerigo is overcome with a sinking fear about Cottolengo. When a priest working on behalf of the ruling Christian Democrats suggests the residents were voting out of gratitude to God, Amerigo undergoes a full-blown existential crisis:

“Gratitude to God.” Gratitude for their misfortunes? Amerigo tried to calm his nerves by reflecting (theology was not his forte) on Voltaire, Leopardi (his arguments against the goodness of nature and of providence), and then -naturally — on Kierkegaard, Kafka (the acknowledgement of a god beyond man’s ken, a terrible god). The election, here, if you paid it some attention, became a kind of religious rite. For the mass of voters, but also for him: the supervisor’s concern with possible frauds was finally trapped in a metaphysical fraud. Seen from here, from the depth of this condition, politics, progress, history were perhaps not even conceivable (we are in India), any human effort to modify what is given, any attempt to elude the fate that falls to a man at birth, was absurd.

His party is only the other side of the same coin, an agent of stultification nearly as bad as the church:

In those years the Italian Communist party, among its many other tasks, had also assumed the position of an ideal liberal party, which had never really existed. And so the bosom of each individual Communist could house two personalities at once: an intransigent revolutionary and an Olympian liberal. The more schematic international Communism became, in those hard times, the more explicit its official, collective expressions became, the more the militant individual lost inner richness, to conform to the compact, cast-iron block, and the more the liberal, housed in the same individual, gained new, iridescent facets.

Amerigo fears Cottolengo is the whole world, and all people its disfigured helpless inhabitants. The Communist Party — in the shadow of Stalin and the dogma of Diamat — can be nothing other than a second church. As evidenced by the growth of operaismo as well as the PCI’s eventual adoption of Eurocommunism (which drew its reformist spirit from the liberal facets Calvino references), Amerigo’s crisis was somewhat common among Italian Communists at the time. What has gone merely implied to this point is that Calvino is a fantastic writer, and he doesn’t let the reader underestimate the turmoil he and other former Communists had to confront. Amerigo is shaken to his core opinion of humanity: the seeming inevitability of exploitative and dulling command structures must mean that’s all the race deserves. There may be no one more full of despair than the fallen Communist.

After the morning shift, Amerigo returns home on his break to console himself in a book. Here he preforms the literal “return to Marx” and reads from the 1844 Manuscripts, which Calvino quotes at length:

Man’s universality appears, practically speaking, in that same universality that makes all nature man’s inorganic body, both because nature is (1) an immediate means of subsistence, and because it is (2) the matter, the object, and the instrument of man’s vital activity. Nature is man’s inorganic body precisely because it is not his human body. To say man lives on nature means that nature is his body, with which he must constantly progress, in order not to die.

This passage has an immediately transformational effect on Amerigo:

Swiftly, he was convinced Marx could mean also this: once outside the society that makes men become things, the totality of things — nature and industry — becomes human, and even the handicapped man, the Cottolengo man (or, in his worst hypothesis, simply man), is restored to the rights of the human race as he makes use of this total body, this extension of his body: the richness of what exists (also “inorganic, spiritual nature,” he read earlier, perhaps through a residue of Hegelianism, that is to say, reasoned nature, as in science and art), what has become finally a general object of human conscience and human life. Can it also mean that “Communism” (Amerigo tried to make the word sound as if it were being uttered for the first time, so that it would again be possible to think, beneath the noun’s husk of this dream of a death and resurrection of nature, a Utopia’s treasure buried beneath the foundations of “scientific” doctrine), that Communism will restore sound legs to the lame, and eyesight to the blind? Will the lame man then have many, many legs at his disposal to run with, so many that he won’t notice if one of his own is missing? That the blind man will have so many antennae to understand the world that he will forget he has no eyes?

I quote this section at length, not only for its beauty, but to forestall the complaint that I’m stretching to read Calvino’s story as a piece of Marxist, and indeed, operaismo, theory rather than simply “political literature.” But Amerigo’s return to Marx is not only narratively, but substantially similar to the turn in Tronti and others. By going back to the textual source (contrasted with prayer, which Calvino uses to characterize voting), Amerigo can reimagine what it might mean to be a “Communist” outside the institutions that (re)produce people as helpless and dependent, but this is not yet the Copernican inversion that makes The Watcher a workerist parable. For the final turn, we must return to Cottolengo.

Amerigo sympathizes with the residents at the end of the first section, recognizing a nobility in the peasant who comes to visit his blind son, and he even begins to identify with a dwarf who knocks against a glass window at a visiting member of parliament, forcing the representative to recognize the dwarf’s non-voting (and non-representable) existence. But it isn’t until he meets a man without hands, who votes by himself with a pencil and proceeds to draw a cigarette from a pack and light it without assistance, that Amerigo understands the residents of Cottolengo (and by extension, humanity) differently:

Amerigo though: Man triumphs even over malign biological mutations; and he recognized in the man’s features, in his clothes and manner, the traits that mark working humanity, also deprived — symbolically and literally — something of its completeness, and yet able to build itself, to affirm the decisive role of homo faber. [emphasis mine]

Whereas before Amerigo feared that the residents of Cottolengo stood for a whole blighted humanity, he begins here to see them as portraits of potential, of species-being. Homo faber is man the builder, man the creator. Making is not only what people do, but the man-as-worker in this creative sense is his decisive role. This is what allows Marx to write in the first volume of Capital: “Labor, then, as the creator of use-values, as useful labor, is a condition of human existence which is independent of all forms of society; it is an eternal natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and nature, and therefore human life itself.” As “independent of all forms of society,” labor precedes the capital relation, it is the use of one’s organic and inorganic body, the “richness of what exists.” The use of the terminology “working humanity” [2] is an audacious choice by an author so clearly steeped in Marxist philosophy and no doubt exposed to a surfeit of texts in which the set of “workers” has a much more specific referent, one that would relegate the handless man to the sub-worker lumpen class.

The inversion allows Amerigo to level the proper critique against the institutions that constrain and distort that primary force of labor (especially the party itself) and see Communism as more than another church or factory:

Homo faber‘s city, Amerigo thought, always runs the risk of mistaking its institutions for the secret fire without which cities are not founded and machinery’s wheels aren’t set in motion; and in defending institutions, unawares, you can let the fire die out.

There’s an antagonism here, between the fire of human creativity and the institutions that would put it out while claiming to be its source. Calvino’s warning is about mistaking the ways in which institutions manage (or rather, command) labor for the existential human practice of labor itself. This is the part of Marx that, although it would ultimately be a centerpiece of his thought, Tronti writes of in “Struggle Against Labor,” as “a question which we cannot yet answer.” But Calvino had.

What is most remarkable about The Watcher is not that Calvino developed an understanding of the “Copernican inversion” and the primacy of labor before Tronti did (although, according to my reading, he did [3]), it is the way he not only prefigures, but integrates, so much of contemporary Italian Marxist theory. The common is there, which has been the focus of much of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri‘s recent writing, as are Paolo Virno’s theories on human nature as defined by man’s incompleteness and potential. We can glimpse Tronti’s critiques of the practice of democracy, and the beginnings of the multitude or organization without institutions. The workers’ “fire” is a component of what Alberto Toscano calls capital’s double bind, that the boss must exploit workers while making use of (and therefore cultivating) the same capacities that workers use to organize and resist [4]. I believe there’s even more to be gained from The Watcher as a piece of workerist theory; Calvino’s focus on subjects below democracy, like the residents of Cottolengo, could be particularly fruitful [5]. Perhaps there’s even a solid critique of Giorgio Agamben’s category of “bare life” — to which the handless man stands as defiant retort.

But our task is to read Calvino in the eternal present-tense of species-being, to be reminded of the secret fire that builds society at a time when we glimpse it breaking free from its smothering institutions around the globe, to stoke that flame and remain fidelitous to its damaged human hearth. Indeed, to live something called communism.


“Will the lame man then have many, many legs at his disposal to run with, so many that he won’t notice if one of his own is missing?”

  1. The odd construction here is important because it indicates the speed at which societies have been changing under late capitalism. The “post-” here doesn’t represent so much a departure in the group putting forth the theory — after all, the best known post-operaismo writer, Antonio Negri, was a leading theorist of the original operaismo group — but a departure in the world to be understood. Writers in this line often focus on post-Fordist or affective labor as well as a host of other subjects that didn’t exist to the same degree in the sixties and seventies when it was first developed. began as an analysis primarily of the Fordist factory, but, along with capital, has moved far beyond it.
  2. If a comrade has an Italian edition and wants to let me know whether Calvino uses operare or lavorare here, that would be awesome.
  3. It’s entirely possible that I’m wrong on this, but I don’t think so . . .
  4. A point I really wish I had included in my review of Adam Kotsko’s Awardness for The New Inquiry.
  5. If anyone is really interested in this, you can read more of my thoughts in the sub-section of my senior thesis “They The People” (p. 69–74).