Workers' Inquiry

This reading list contains links to easily accessible versions of the texts, just click on the underlined parts.

This is intended as a work in progress and if you want to suggest any articles or links that are not on here, please get in touch.

Karl Marx

The inspiration for the workers’ inquiry starts with Marx. In Capital, Marx undertakes a critique of capitalism. It is can be followed with David Harvey’s video lecturers.

Marx

A useful starting point for understanding Capital in the context of a workers inquiry is chapter ten on the working day. It introduces a number of important concepts, in particular the extraction of surplus value from workers in the process of production. It has an ethnographic character (referring to the scientific description of peoples and cultures with their customs, habits, and mutual differences). It is similar in that sense to Frederick Engels' The Condition of the Working Class in England. Chapter ten focuses on the struggle over the length of the working day. It features a number of different voices; however the investigation relies on the bourgeois factory inspectors. Their reports into workers’ conditions are treated in a similar way to that the quality of soil was considered for agriculture.

Marx attempted to move beyond this with his call for A Workers Inquiry. The inquiry involved a long questionnaire, which the introduction states aimed to understand workers exploitation from their own perspective. But this is not only a research project for Marx: the workers are not only able to describe their conditions but crucially to try and transform them. Therefore Marx states that workers do not need to necessarily answer the questions in full, but requests that they send in their contact details.

The Johnson-Forest Tendency

The Johnson-Forest Tendency took its name from the pen-names of C. L. R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya. The most famous example of an inquiry the group undertook is The American Worker, published in 1947. The first part was written by Phil Singer (under the pen name Paul Romano) and describes working in a factory in great detail, and the second part written by Grace Lee Boggs (Ria Stone) analyses his experience.

JFT

The group produced two other examples in a similar style: Indignant Heart: A Black Worker’s Journal, Charles Denby (Si Owens) - an extract of which can be found here - and A Woman’s Place, Marie Brant (Selma James) and Ellen San¬tori (Filom¬ena D’Addario). These three examples are narrative accounts of workers or oppressed people describing their own conditions.

An introduction to the group can be found in this article.

Socialisme ou Barbarie

This French group republished The American Worker, with a new introduction to the text and undertook similar inquiries. Like the Johnson-Forest Tendency they were interested in the effects of the new structure of the labour process. Georges Vivier wrote Life in the Factory, and similar projects were undertaken by Daniel Mothé in the Renault Billancourt factory and Henri Simon in an insurance company. Henri Simon has reflected on the experience of Workers' Inquiry in Socialisme ou Barbarie. A longer theoretical piece about the role of inquiry was written by Claude Lefort, called Proletarian Experience.

SouB

Operaismo - Italian Workerism

These inquiries took place later than either the Johnson-Forest Tendency or Socialisme ou Barbarie, but drew on their experience and writings. The famous example is the inquiry at the FIAT factory, detailed in Romano Alquati's Organic Composition of Capital and Labor-power at Olivetti and Struggle at FIAT.

Operaismo

There was a lot of debate in the journals about the workers inquiry as a method. This can be seen, for example, in Raniero Panzieri's Socialist uses of workers inquiry or Mario Tronti's Lenin in England. These debates have been outlined in an interview with Vittorio Rieser, summarised usefully as a debate between what might be called 'inquiry from above' - where there is little contact with the workplace - and 'inquiry from below' or co-research - breaking down the distinction between researcher and researched.

Mario Tronti has recently reflected back on this period in an article called Our Operaismo.

Contemporary Examples and Further Reading

A group called Kolinko published Hotlines - call centre | inquiry | communism, an inquiry into call centres in Germany.

Hotlines

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Viewpoint Magazine have published a special issue on workers' inquiry, which has a range of useful articles.

Including: Workers’ Inquiry: A Genealogy | Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi

In 1880, La Revue socialiste asked an aging Karl Marx to draft a questionnaire to be circulated among the French working class. Called “A Workers’ Inquiry,” it was a list of exactly 101 detailed questions, inquiring about everything from meal times to wages to lodging…

Viewpoint

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The journal Ephemera has also published a special issue on the politics of workers' inquiry

This issue brings together a series of commentaries, interventions and projects centred on the theme of workers’ inquiry. Workers’ inquiry is a practice of knowledge production that seeks to understand the changing composition of labour and its potential for revolutionary social transformation. It is a practice of turning the tools of the social sciences into weapons of class struggle. It also seeks to map the continuing imposition of the class relation, not as a disinterested investigation, but rather to deepen and intensify social and political antagonisms.

Workers’ inquiry developed in a context marked by rapid industrialization, mass migration and the use of industrial sociology to discipline the working class. It was formulated within autonomist movements as a sort of parallel sociology based on a radical re-reading of Marx and Weber against the politics of the communist party and the unions. The process of inquiry took the contradictions of the labour process as a starting point and sought to draw out such political antagonisms into the formation of new radical subjectivities. With this issue we seek to rethink workers’ inquiry as a practice and perspective, in order to understand and catalyse emergent moments of political composition.

Ephemera

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Libcom has a large collection of articles on workers inquiry.