(This is a guest posting by David McInerney, editor of "Althusser & Us", Borderlands.*)
The following does not constitute a close reading of "The Strategy of Refusal", or its place within Tronti's work more generally. Given other demands, the best I can do is relate Tronti's work to my recent study of Louis Althusser's defence/rethinking of the concept of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat and its relations to his "aleatory materialism". For me, the affinities between Althusser and Tronti stand out most clearly with respect to their shared opposition to both Eurocommunism and Stalinism, the difficulties that both faced in grasping the immanent demise of post-WWII social democracy, and the irruption of neoliberalism into European politics (which I think Jodi Dean commented on). And yet, it is perhaps because of this fact that their work remains valuable, considering the pre-Marxist dross of "radical democracy" (the reanimated Bernstein that passes for "post-marxism") that dominates Left thinking today.
One area where similarities and differences are very apparent is in the account each gives of classes and class struggle. Although I have not been able to give it the close reading it deserves, in Tronti's essay he seems to suggest that the working class predates capitalism, while stating that capitalism always exists in class struggle. Moreover, that capitalism is constituted in the State (which represents the class dictatorship of the capitalist class), and that this fact necessitates the party as a means of destroying the dictatorship of the capitalist class. There is also Tronti's peculiar thesis there that this class struggle is always "even", or the more peculiar thesis that the working class - the nominally subordinate class - occupies the dominant position because it plays the constitutive role within capitalism.
There are many echoes of this position within Althusser's work, especially after 1968. For Althusser, the question of classes and class struggle is extremely complex, but outlining some of the important points might bring some issues into focus. The first of these is that classes do not pre-exist class struggle, but rather that class struggle is primary and classes are immanent to the process of class struggle. You find this thesis in various works, most notably in Althusser's 'Reply to John Lewis' of 1972. This leads us necessarily to think of the sudden "birth" of capitalism as one which gives rise to two classes constituted in the struggle between them, namely the capitalist class and the working class. Here one can see an echo and perhaps a development of Tronti's position, and I would urge that we attempt to read them together, rather than attempt to push Tronti's work in a post-marxist direction (which is in no way warranted by the letter of his text).
Another point of contact involves the critique each gives of the "Marxist" account of "bourgeois revolution" put forward by Lefebvre et al. The names 'bourgeoisie' and 'proletariat' used for these classes are for me problematic given all the issues alluded to by Tronti in his article, by Althusser in his book on Montesquieu (and in his later - post-1980 - writings), and by others such as Ellen Mieskins Wood (eg., 'The Origins of Capitalism: A Longer View') and Georges C. Comninel on the the effects of the various Marxist histories of the "French Revolution" and "bourgeois revolution". These all imply an understanding of the "proletarian revolution" as a negation and self-overcoming of the "bourgeois revolution" (but still imagined as necessarily both based upon and in important respects "completing" that earlier revolution) - in much of what we might call "The Marxist Tradition" (a "tradition" that we should look upon with the same suspicion as Tronti looks upon "culture" and "intellectuals").
This is especially interesting given what Althusser began work on in 1972: his reading of Machiavelli in terms of his account of fortuna and virtœ, and more precisely his analysis of the conjuncture in terms of the emergence and then reproduction of structures (understood in terms of a "taking hold" or "gelling" of a chance encounter of elements that might - or might not - have, in other circumstances, previously come together but failed to "take hold"). Althusser developed this further in a series of 1982 fragments subsequently assembled by editors as "The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter", where he claims that the elements of capitalism - a body of labourers separated from the means of production, certain means of production and production techniques, as well as certain legal, ideological, and political forms - all pre-existed capitalism and, hence, pre-existed the struggle between the capitalist and worker which defines it. In this sense the "workers" exist prior to capitalism - and hence have an existence prior to the existence of the capitalist class and the capitalist state - and yet do not constitute the "working class", let alone the "proletariat" of revolution (or socialism, understood as the movement to abolish the State) because these are constituted only in that process of "taking hold" which is both the process of the constitution of the state and the irruption of capitalism (understood as defined by the class struggle between capitalist and worker). Here again we something in Althusser which was foreshadowed in Tronti's paper, and should be seen as arising out of the same conjuncture (with all of the same difficulties for socialism) - the conjuncture of the emergence of "Marxist humanism" and Eurocommunism (ie., the abandonment of the concept of class struggle). These "elements" of capitalism "pre-exist" it a mode of production that can exist only when the conditions are present for it to take hold, to gel, to endure.
It endures only through the constitution of the State, which (as Augusto Illuminati summarises in his review of Althusser in the latest borderlands issue) is a "machine" that transforms the force of the class struggle into the power of the capitalist class through law and bureaucracy. In 'What Must Change in the Party' (1978) Althusser also analyses the Party as a machine, but a machine of a different sort (although he points out the effects of its subordination to the capitalist state within economism and Stalinism). Tronti seems to hint at such a thesis, when he claims that while there is an even contest between the capitalist class and working class at the economic level capitalism is constituted as such at the political level, by the state machine, which transforms the reversible, aleatory, and fluid battle between classes into a relatively stable structure of capitalist domination (this reminds me also of Paul Patton's reading of Foucault's late work on power). On the other hand the "machine" of the working class - the Party - enables the political irruption of the proletariat as a movement that abolishes the existing order of things, which destroys the State. Such a movement is, however, not co-extensive with the class struggle, and before it can take this turn the working class has its political existence in this "strategy of refusal", the refusal of the workers to constitute capital, a refusal which is always momentary and brief but which necessarily happens again and again...
It is work such as Tronti's and Althusser's - both of whom defend the concept of class dictatorship as a way of understanding capitalism and socialism (as the "armed" movement to abolish it) - that might enable us to see that falsest of false paths that led the Left into "parliamentary socialism" in the 1970s, and which culminated in the "post-marxism" of the 1980s and the Blairism of the 1990s (a movement which Ellen Mieskins Wood characterised, rightly, in 1986 as a "retreat from class" - although she erroneously attributed Poulantzas's Eurocommunism to Althusser). It might also lead us to grasp the possibilities of encounters between Marxism and other movements that oppose the state and property.
This leads me to consider a second area of interest: namely Tronti's views on intellectuals and culture. It seems to me that an encounter between Tronti and Althusser - and, indeed, to a certain extent between them and Deleuze and Foucault - is possible here, and the politics of refusal might be related to a similar gesture of refusal within Althusser's work post-1967 with regard to philosophy, his understanding of "philosophies" as discourses of state, and the necessity for the development of a materialist practice in philosophy (understood as representing the class struggle in theory, and constituted as opposing tendencies of idealism and materialism) that would constitute a "non-philosophy" in the same way that the dictatorship of the proletariat constitutes a non-politics, an attempt to undo politics, to destroy the state in its very foundations, which are the dominance of the appropriators over the producers within class society. (As Nate suggested in an email response to my first draft of this post, there might also be possibilities of a joining of forces between these Marxist theses and those of Alain Badiou, whose recent book Metapolitics I have not yet had time to read.)
It is in this respect that Tronti's understanding of the intellectual as one who stands between the party and the masses - and, crucially, guarantees their correspondence in theory - comes to bear, and perhaps we need to rethink our understandings of Foucault and Gramsci on intellectuals (but we cannot for a minute assume that either is adequate, especially given the uses made of Gramsci within the Eurocommunist defence of the state and bourgeois economism, and the uses made of Foucault by the "dissident" New Philosophers) and begin to grasp how each of us might, as Gramsci said, be philosophers, but also how we must become philosophers of a very specific type - partisans of non-philosophy, partisans of the refusal of Philosophy as guarantee of the correct union of theory and practice, revolutionaries working toward the destruction of capitalism and its intellectual/manual division of labour, and guerrillas opening up new roads into the jungles of knots of time and meaning that are yet to form.
* David has also been working on the fledgling weblog, Interventions, planning to host a reading group on Althusser's philosophical and political writings of the 1970s later this year.