Disassembling Fordism from the Inside: Transnational Radicals in Detroit and Turin in the 1960s
By Nico Pizzolato
In the post-war period, during the climax of Fordism, factories became the birthplace of a new political praxis that mixed Marxist social theory with the bustling energy and initiative of novel demographics of workers. Though unschooled in Das Kapital, it was often young migrants who came to expose the glaring structural inequalities that Fordism, both a system of production and one of governance, generated as it reshaped the core economic sectors of Western countries. In the 1960s and 1970s, labor activists across Europe and North-America came up with new ways of articulating the relationship between the workers, the companies, and organized labor. In particular, the concepts of “autonomy” and “self-activity” gained popularity among intellectuals and labor militants who sought ways to improve workers’ conditions and change the societal system. As hubs of Fordist production, Detroit and Turin, though distant geographically, became important centers in the theory and practice of such unorthodox tactics to change the world.
Labor dissent took different forms in Detroit and Turin, but eventually converged towards a similar critique of organized labor and its role in underpinning capitalism. More importantly, in a world with expensive transcontinental travel and no internet, activists in the USA and in Italy (as well as in France, Germany or the UK) were aware of each other and influenced each other’s positions and political tactics. In this international cauldron of political ideas on the left of organized labor and socialist or communist parties, radicals in Detroit and Turin developed a stringent critique of Fordism, both as a production system and as a political economy. These radicals saw the car factories as the key loci for change – laboratories for a possible ‘‘autonomist’’ working-class activity that could take over industrial production and overhaul the societal system – and urged workers to develop their own forms of collective organization, beyond existing labor organizations. In fact, the key distinctiveness of radicals in both cities was to consider the predominant institutions representing workers as part and parcel of the systems of exploitation organized around the factory and spilling into the whole system of social life in which workers were embedded.
In Detroit, in the late 1940s, the so-called Johnson-Forest tendency (later named Correspondence), led by CLR James and Raya Dunayeskaya, drove themselves out of mainstream American socialism by comparing Soviet control of workers to the capitalist one. If factory workers were controlled by the state and unable to organize themselves, what was the difference? But fighting for workers’ primary right to self-organize also led the group to a scathing critique of American organized labor. This was exemplified in Detroit by the United Automobile Workers (UAW), a liberal union, but one whose potential to inspire societal change was increasingly stifled by internal bureaucracy and by Faustian bargains with automobile manufacturers. In turn, these ideas built on a wider critique of liberalism in the United States in the 1950s, perhaps best exemplified by C. Wright Mills’s suggestion, in The Power Elite, that liberal democracy had given way to the oligarchic rule of some elite groups under the cloak of a formal democracy.
In Italy, labor activist and writer Danilo Montaldi translated some of this international work. These ideas flowed into Quaderni Rossi, a group and its journal, based in Turin and directed by Raniero Panzieri. explored in depth the question of workers’ autonomy vis-a-vis the party; the group came to propound the thesis that the working class was not the passive victim of changes in capitalism, but had the power to initiate struggle and to force change on the capitalist structure. This contention underpinned the so-called operaismo (“workerism”) of the Italian radical left in the 1960s.
On both sides of the Atlantic these ideas reinvigorated the debate on Fordism, mass production and the prospect of the working class-led uprising. By looking at signs of workers autonomy, these transnational radicals recognized that workers had not been integrated passively into the political economy of Fordism – they were not “alienated” as the sociological literature portrayed them – but represented the potential source of a revolutionary movement that would overcome capitalism, if only bureaucratic unions and parties would step out of the way. In Detroit, left wing organizations such as the Socialist Workers Party came to consider Black workers, as the most exploited segment in the factories, as a potential vanguard for revolutionary action. In Turin, radical groups, shunned by unionized Piedmontese workers, found often a more sympathetic ear among southern migrants in search of a political identity.
The ideas of the transnational radicals seemed soon vindicated by events both in Turin and Detroit. ‘‘The working class has a spontaneous strategy of its own motions and development: the party needs only to detect it, express it, and organize it,’’ wrote Mario Tronti, one of the key leaders of operaismo. And indeed, in 1969 in Italy, the working class took the lead in opening a long season of labor conflict, which lasted until 1975 and reshaped industrial relations and, for a generation to come, employment rights. In Turin, radicals, usually linked to the student movement that had swept Italy in 1968, first canvassed outside factory gates and created worker-student assemblies. Radicals, that is, were shaping their political strategy in line with workers’ lived experience on the shop floor. Starting with the so-called Autunno caldo, the autumn of 1969, autoworkers flocked to radical groups such as Lotta Continua and Potere Operaio, which fiercely criticized the stale Italian Communist Party and its metalworkers union, the CGIL. Production departments, where young workers, often of southern background, were bringing the radical political strategy that they helped forge into the industrial relations of the firm becoming restless organizers and organic intellectuals of that new segment of the Italian working class.
In Detroit, it was Black workers, usually at the bottom rung of organized labor priorities, who took the lead. By the late 1960s, in Detroit, Black workers represented the majority in the most demanding and dangerous production jobs, such as in foundries, painting, and body assembly lines. For Black militants this division of labor exemplified the workings of racial capitalism, one that merged exploitation with discrimination and which was endorsed by both company managers – who recruited on the assumption that Black workers had the lowest skills and abilities – and union representatives – who rarely challenged discriminatory managerial policies. The group DRUM (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, later League of Revolutionary Black Workers) made history by closing down Dodge Main, Chysler’s flagship factory, as well as other Detroit-area factories, thus bringing national production to a standstill. In doing so, these workers jeopardized the long-standing relationship between the manufacturers and the union, where the latter guaranteed the domestication of workers on the shop floor against recognition as a union and increments in workers’ financial benefits linked to productivity. Black workers, such as General Baker or Ron March, brought to the movement their backgrounds as young civil rights activists and the influence and the political language of Black Power.
While Detroit was divided by racial fault lines, in Turin it was ethnicity that mattered. The mass migration from the south of Italy since the late 1950s had brought, in distinct waves, masses of Southern Italians who were culturally and linguistically different from native Piedmontese workers. As they entered the Fordist factory in large number in the late 1960s, they also found themselves at the bottom of the ladder in the production department, while bearing the brunt of isolation and discrimination in the northern metropole. Through their critique, but in particular through their action, the League showed the role of racism in enabling the drivers of capitalist exploitation. Even without the aggravating legacy of racism, southern migrants – vilified as “terroni”, a term that underlined that they did not belong to the modern, urban world – found themselves as politically marginal in Turin. It was therefore under circumstances that smacked of social inferiority that they forged a new collective identity and transformed the workplace.
In the late 1960s and the early 1970s, American radicals active in Detroit visited Italy, touring student-occupied universities and leftists’ halls, rather than Italy’s famed churches and museums. DRUM’s John Watson toured Italy to introduce his self-produced Finally Got the News, a 16mm film about the struggles in Detroit and their connection to racial capitalism in the USA. Even though many ideas about self-activity had originated in Detroit, it was Italians who had at this point elaborated a more sophisticated understanding of the political meaning of workers’ self-organization. American radicals however impressed Italians, and many thought that the insurgent John Watson “looked like the son of Malcolm X”. However, contemporary accounts suggest that the Italian workers had more difficulty in understanding the role of racism in dividing the American working class.
News of the Italian working-class struggle and their iconoclastic ideology travelled to Detroit through activist-intellectuals such as Ferruccio Gambino and Bruno Cartosio, who both spent a long time in North America, also visiting the resilient Correspondence leaders, such as Martin Glaberman, James and Grace Lee Boggs, who had acted as mentors to the generation that now agitated in the factories. Writer and cineaste Dan Georgakas, who also spoke some Italian, worked incessantly to connect the two sides of the Atlantic. In the early 1970s Radical America, the journal of the student movement, ran several pieces by Italian radicals, but these could not have been written without the extensive connections previously built between Turin and Detroit.
The legacy of the transnational radicals of Detroit and Turin continues to inspire and live on, even as the factories in those cities have long closed their gates. In Italy, operaismo left its imprint on Italian politics of the 1960s and 1970s, drawing on its ability to inspire and articulate the political meaning of the workers’ struggle outside of the fold of organized labor. Activists and intellectuals such as Mario Tronti, Toni Negri, Romano Alquati, Franco Berardi, and many others, have left a corpus of writing that represents Italians’ most significant contribution to social theory in the 20th century. In Detroit, in the context of an accelerating deindustrialization, the political effects of radical struggles were more short-lived, but understanding the philosophy and political vocabulary of DRUM and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers is essential to comprehending the trajectory of the civil rights movement in the North and the workings of racial capitalism in the United States, foregrounding the themes underpinning Black Lives Matter in the 21st century.
 Mario Tronti, Operai e Capitale, Torino, Einaudi, 1963, p. 113.
 Nicola Pizzolato, “Transnational radicals: Labour dissent and political activism in Detroit and Turin (1950–1970).” International Review of Social History 56.1 (2011): 1-30, p. 26
Nico Pizzolato is the author of Challenging Global Capitalism: Labor Migration, Radical Struggle and Urban Change in Detroit and Turin (Palgrave, 2013) and of numerous articles that focus on the interplay between labor migration, race and ethnic relations, working-class self-activity, and political campaigns. He has co-edited Antonio Gramsci: A Pedagogy to Change the World (Springer, 2017). His most recent work is on unfree and precarious labor in twentieth century United States. He is a senior lecturer in Global Labour Studies at Middlesex University and member of WORCK (Worlds of Related Coercion at Work). You can find a complete list of his work here.
Further articles in the Factory Reloaded series on TRAFO:
Görkem Akgöz, Malak Labib, and Nurçin İleri, Factory Reloaded: Transregional Perspectives on the Industrial Workplace, 18 February 2021.
Görkem Akgöz, Spaces of National-Industrial Modernity: Factories and Factory Women in Early Republican Turkey, 5 March 2021.
André Weißenfels, Middle Class Factory: The (partial) Privilege of industrial Labor in Tunisia, 19 March 2021.
Josefine Carla Hoffmann, Training as a Gatekeeper at the Indo-German Factory, 16 April 2021.
Malak Labib, Re-shaping the “Socialist Factory” in Egypt in the Late 1960s–1970s, 30 April 2021.
Nurçin İleri, Nationalism on the Shop Floor: The Silahtarağa Electric Power Plant in the Early 1920s, 18 May 2021.
Citation: Nico Pizzolato, Disassembling Fordism from the Inside: Transnational Radicals in Detroit and Turin in the 1960s, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 28.05.2021, http://trafo.hypotheses.org/28989.