Under the soles of his shoes, you can still recognise the dirt of history. “This is all that remains. A mix of straw and shit by which we delude ourselves into erecting cathedrals to the worker’s dream.“ Here’s a man, I say to myself, imbued with a consistency that bursts through in a total melancholy. It’s Mario Tronti, the most celebrated of the theorists of Operaismo. He has only recently finished writing a book on this subject: the origins of his thought, how it has changed and what it is today. I don’t know who will publish it (I would guess a decent publisher). I read a profound sense of despair. Like a chronicle of defeat articulated through the long agony of a past that has not yet passed at all, that refuses to die, but is no longer wanted.
“It’s the others who keep you going”, he says ironically. When life, if only, demands other trials, other choices. Perhaps it is for this reason – to find an escape – that he has distracted himself with Tai Chi: “the gestures of this oriental martial art reveal, in their slowness, a secret harmony. Everything is concentrated on respiration. I did it for a bit. With curiosity and attention. But in the end I realised I wasn’t good enough. Out of place. The orient requires a mindset that can create empty space [il vuoto]. I live in a house full of the things I’ve accumulated over time.
How did your interest in Tai Chi start?
Thanks to my daughter who loves and practices oriental culture. She would have wanted to become a nun, so she chose the same profound consistency in this world that I’ve only touched.
And how have you taken this decision of hers?
With the respect that is required whenever approaching what concerns those close to you.
Is there an element of unpredictability with children?
Always: with individuals, just like with history.
Did you expect that the story – I mean yours – would end this way?
I always expect the best. Then come the knocks. Coming up against facts without an airbag can do you damage. I was a communist, marxist, operaista. Some things end. Some things last. I have learnt and applied the lesson of political realism: you can’t ignore the facts.
And the facts today are indicative of a great crisis?
Great and long. It concerns all of us a little, at many diverse levels. It’s lasted at least seven years and still nobody is able to tell us how to get out of it. We’re living in a time without epoch.
What does it mean?
It is our time, however it lacks an epoch: this period that has arisen and will continue into the future. History has become small, the daily report has prevalence: gossip, complaints, platitudes.
So the epoch is time hastened with thought?
Not just that. It is the time that leaps forward. It occurs when things happen that visibly transform our living world.
Nostalgia for revolutions?
No, if anything the twentieth century was the century of revolutions. But not only that. Where are the grand ideas, the great literature, the grand politics or the great art? I don’t seen anything like what the first half of the twentieth century produced.
When did the explosion of creativity end?
In the 60s.
Your golden years?
That’s the irony of history. There was a great twentieth century, and a small twentieth century built out of an awareness that it is no longer able to reflect on itself.
Is this a farewell to the idea of progress?
These days Progressivism is the thing furthest from myself. I reject the idea that whatever is new is always better and more advanced than what was there before.
It was one of the inviolable creeds of Marxism.
It was the false security of thinking that the defeat was only an episode. Because meanwhile, we thought, history was on our side.
We saw how it went, didn’t we?
Do you feel like you’ve been defeated, or you’ve failed?
I am defeated, not a victor. The victories are never final. But we have lost – not a battle – but the war of the twentieth century.
And who has triumphed?
Capitalism. But without class struggle, without an adversary, it has lost its vitality. It has become something of a monstrosity.
Do you recognise in yourself a certain amount of intellectual pride?
I recognise it, but it’s not such a bad thing. Pride offers clarity, distance, it gives you the force to intervene in things. Better anyway than the renunciation of thought. In all this chaos I would like to protect the ‘point of view’.
The ‘point of view’?
Yes, I cannot position myself on the level of general interest. I was and remain a partisan thinker.
When did you discover your party?
I was very young. Some people attribute to my Operaismo in the 60s. I think it was during my time as a student that my path was fixed.
In a book about you by Franco Milanesi – unsurprisingly titled In the Twentieth Century – he describes your thought. When was it born?
Even before Operaismo I was a communist. A Stalinist father, a large family, the wealthier suburbs of the city. These are my roots.
In what area of Rome were you born?
Ostiense, which was a bit of Testaccio. I remember the market. The cassisti who worked there. They weren’t working class, but common [popolo]. I was part of that story. Then came intellectual reflection.
What were the points of references? What opened your eyes?
I say it often: we are a generation without masters [maestri].
You were, in your own way, a master [maestro: maestro/maestri can also mean instructor/teacher/leader].
I don’t follow?
Operai e capitale, your most famous book, has had a very large influence. Einaudi published it. What do you remember?
It was a piece of luck. I didn’t know anyone in the publishing industry in Turin. It occurred to me to send the manuscript without imagining anybody would receive it positively. I know there was a big discussion and many disagreements among the editors, the strongest being that of [Norberto] Bobbio.
That was predictable.
Absolutely, look at the situation. At this point I wrote directly to Giulio Einaudi to explain the meaning of my book.
What did he say?
He completely understood it. Against the advice of nearly the entire editorial team he dug his heels in and the book was published. That first edition was quickly sold out. This was 1966. I was 35 years old. This text, since revised with the addition of a postscript, is still being read today.
Are you satisfied?
It’s a book in which people are still stuck. People are still dealing with that stuff. It’s hard to make them understand that, in the meantime, things have changed. They think that the proletariat has stayed the same.
Is that not so?
For me Operaismo fulfilled its role for a brief period. Then began the period of the autonomy of the political, cursed by everyone.
Why was it cursed?
I am still hostile to the post-Operaismo generation.
You’re alluding to the 70s?
They started the small twentieth century. This is where the drift started.
It was a great misinterpretation?
Let’s face it: it was a generational thing, anti-patriarchal and libertarian. I’ve never been a libertarian.
Where did ’68 fail?
It was a fork in the road, both paths of which were wrong. On the one hand it radicalised in a completely futile fashion and turned people to terrorism. For me, being passionate about the tragedy of history, I saw in what happened the futility and the senselessness of tragedy.
And the other path?
At the end of ’68 there was a great turnover in the managerial class. The race to sneak into the establishment.
Not too bad for the irony of history.
I am one of its paradoxes and its unpredictabilities.
And the myth of the working class? The “rude pagan race” as you have termed it.
It was not what we thought. The workers wanted a wage rise, not the revolution. This was one of the reasons that led me to discover the virtues of political realism.
It was a goodbye to illusions?
We saw red. But it wasn’t the red of a new dawn, rather that of the sunset.
Where does this “defeated” Mario Tronti situate himself?
I am a man out of his time. I have always shared the elderly Hegel’s view that a man more resembles his own time than his own father. My time was the world of yesterday: the twentieth century. In any case it will never be the retirement home for beautiful souls.
With what emotional resonances do you remember it?
My tone is now that of a serene desperation. Perhaps that’s why I almost never go to public meetings. It’s too pathetic to go around talking about the way the world is. And then, if I tell the truth, the end of my story is nothing like what it was. It has nothing of tragedy about it.
You have passed from Operaismo to Machiavelli, Hobbes, and now political theology, via the prophets, to the figure of Paul.
If someone had predicted it thirty years ago I wouldn’t have believed it. But, look, Paul was the great politician of Christianity. In his letters you can read What is to be Done? by Lenin. I pay a lot of attention to catholicism, its institutional aspect. It is strong and long lasting.
People have accused you of flirting a bit too much with reactionary thought.
From the intellectual point of view I find it part of a stimulating intellectual horizon that includes figures like Taubes, Warburg, Benjamin, Kojève, and Rosenzweig. A constellation that is anomalous and unmentionable in the orthodox tradition. Posthumous men.
Would you call it eclecticism?
It’s not that. I take what I need. I’m very open-minded. I’m intrigued by reactionary thought. Well, I won’t give up the philosophers of the Restoration if they allow me to understand the French Revolution better than the Enlightenment philosophers.
Do you still feel like a man of the left?
It’s a beautiful contradiction, I realise. But how could I be of the left while maintaining the anthropological pessimism that proceeds from my realism? Declaring yourself for the Enlightenment, historicism, positivism – as the left does in a certain way – is to delude yourself that the problems that face us are simple.
Where do you situate yourself today?
In the defeated party. In a Benjaminian sense. He presents the image of the Angel, looking back with wings that catch the storm.
It’s a beautiful image. It brings to mind the terrible and cruel God of the Bible. Do you believe in anything, or did you believe in anything?
To those who divide the world between believers and non-believers, I say that I am neither one nor the other. I am, so to speak, on a kind of border, like Simone Weil described it: do not cross it, but do not turn back. At the same time, I think that the “crooked timber” of humanity, in order to survive, needs some form of faith.
And have you found it?
In some sense I was a believer, too. I believed that you could overthrow capitalism, bring about socialism and finally communism. None of this had anything to do with science.
Does none of this faith remain?
I am more cautious. I clearly perceive the link between realism and passion. Realism alone is opportunism, pure adaptation to reality. To correct this requires a form of passion.
We live in a time of sad and exhausted passions.
Sad, certainly. But not totally exhausted. The trouble is that these days you have no control over history.
What do you mean?
This period is very confused. Everything carries on its own way. At the start of the twentieth century there was talk of a great crisis of modernity. Then it came. And now we’re up to our ears in it, we don’t know in what direction to go. So it’s stalled. You look without seeing.
Your concerns seem like those of a man of the past.
That’s what it’s like in a way. But I don’t care. Why should I? I remember certain old men who, close to death, said: I wished I didn’t have to go. My father believed in a better world. He wanted to see it. Bless him. I say to young people: thank god I’m not your age. I’m glad that I’m going to see the back of this world. That’s what I say.
You don’t expect anything else?
The future is stuck in the present. It’s impossible to imagine anything that isn’t just a continuation of the present state of things. This is the eternal present of which we’ve been speaking. I’m very happy to be obsolete. It consoles me to know that those who run don’t think: only those of us who walk.