Workers' Inquiry: A Genealogy

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The Worker's Inquiry by Karl Marx

The worker's inquiry was a list of 121 specific questions created by Karl Marx that covered everything relevant to employees, from meal times to salary to accommodation. In 1880, Karl Marx produced this questionnaire at the request of La Revue socialiste and urged that it be sent to the French working class (Heider & Mohandesi 1). The worker's inquiry is useful for comprehending capital since it presents several important concepts, particularly the extraction of surplus value from employees during the production process.\u00a0 Marx claimed that the goal of the worker\u2019s inquiry was to establish a precise and definite comprehension of the conditions in which the working class who he insists the future belongs to works and moves. This type of investigation health inspectors and other individuals existed, but it was set apart by the belief that the working class understood and had a more profound knowledge on capitalist exploitation more than other people. Marx was able to establish a crucial epistemological challenge which was the relationship between their understanding of the exploitation of workers and the scientific analysis of the laws of motion of capitalist society (Heider & Mohandesi 2).

The Proletarian Viewpoint

The view of Marx on whether the worker\u2019s inquiry was means of achieving the proletarian viewpoint or whether it was just a workers\u2019 participation in generating universal knowledge is still unclear. But Marx was clear on the aspect that workers would provide both the knowledge concerning the nature of capitalism and would be the only ones to overthrow it. The adoption of workers\u2019 inquiry showed that there was a possible connection between both proletarian knowledge and politics. The workers\u2019 inquiry became important for socialists as they would have to learn from the working class as that would be the only way they would be able to draft programs, articulate strategies, and compose theories. This meant that to acquire a socialist project that was historically appropriate inquiry would have to be a necessary first step.

The Johnson-Forest Tendency

The workers through this project were able to describe as well as significantly put efforts towards transforming their conditions. For this reason, Marx insisted that workers should give their name and address in case there was information that was to be relayed. The John-Forest Tendency was a name that was obtained from pen-names of its two principle theorists CLR James and Raya Dunayevskaya (Heider & Mohandesi 4). It first emerged in 1941 in the form of an oppositional current of the Trotskyist Workers\u2019 Party.

The Correspondence Paper

The Johnson-Forest Tendency argued that the needs of the black community were not the same as that of the white community it would not be right to speedily incorporate them under a homogenized movement like that of the Workers\u2019 Party. They further argued that the black community together with other oppressed minorities should fight for their sovereignty. In 1951 Johnson-Forest Tendency developed a correspondence with a newspaper and named it Correspondence which would be a paper with a difference. The main purpose of this paper was to act as a forum whereby workers could be able to share their personal experiences.

Transformation through Consciousness

The workers were the ones who wrote, edited, and distributed the paper. The paper reflected the Tendency\u2019s view on the primacy of autonomous needs, and as such, it was always divided into four sections: the factory workers, blacks, youth, and women. Tendency believed that would come to understand that their problems are social and not personal as they wrote about their lives. The editors argued that the primary goal of the Correspondence was to change the public perception on certain questions and raise consciousness. Their most famous publication was The American Worker which was divided into two parts. The first part was like a self-reflexive ethnographic investigation of the conditions of the proletarian life in postwar America.

Other Examples

The second part used the experiences of the first part to be able to theorize the content of socialism in a world that was transformed by automation, semi-skilled labor, and assembly line. The group went further to produced two other examples with the same style namely Indignant Hear: A Black Worker\u2019s Journal and A Woman\u2019s Place. They were narrative accounts of workers and those who were oppressed describing their conditions (Heider & Mohandesi 14). All the inquiries of the Johnson-Forest Tendency came up with limited conclusions which were mostly acquired from the phenomena that were observable yet at the same time was making declarative statements on how reality should be.

Socialisme ou Barbarie

These inquiries engage more in scientific analysis; they are sensitive to new methods of production, exploitation, and resistance. The French group Socialisme ou Barbarie republished The American Worker with a new introduction to the text, but they used similar inquiries. Similar to the Johnson-Forest Tendency, the Socialisme ou Barbarie was also interested in the effects of the new structure of the labor process (Heider & Mohandesi 20). They also held the same belief that socialism came from within through the proletarian experiences of everyday.

Capitalism and Alienation

They also believed and agreed that capitalism plays a significant role in socializing workers which means that they are still marked by capitalist ideology. Socialisme ou Barbarie argued that the worker experiences had to be interpreted and developed. This resulted in space opening up for a different role of intellectuals. Castoriadis defines capitalism as the fullest expression of alienation and reification. He also perceives technological development as being the result of lack of motivation (Heider & Mohandesi 24). This lack of motivation can only be overcome through the expansion and consumption which is made possible by the technological development and its augmentation of output.


The Operaismo took place much later than Johnson-Forest Tendency and Socialisme ou Barbarie, but it was mostly influenced by their experiences and writings. The most famous example was the inquiry at the FIAT factory which is detailed in Romano Alquati\u2019s Organic Composition of Capital and Labor-power at Olivetti and Struggle at FIAT (Heider & Mohandesi 74). There are a lot of debates in these journals on the workers\u2019 inquiry as a method, the best examples being Raniero Panzieri\u2019s Socialist uses of workers inquiry and Mario Tronti\u2019s Lenin in England. Panzieri target the enthusiasm for the technological development of the labor bureaucracy.

The Working Class and Capitalism

According to him, transhistorical force was represented by the technical progress which determined the progressive movement through the methods of production. For an Italian worker to be successful in Italian socialism, they would have to submit to the automatons in the automobile factories (Heider & Mohandesi 77). Tronti uses the hegemony of the factory to give an overview of how the class antagonism could be put together with the law of motion of capitalism in a way that those that came before him were unable to do. Even with the understanding of the underdevelopment, the Johnson-Forest Tendency acquired the comprehension that beyond the factory there existed a miserable life which involves childhood in the cotton fields and evenings in the kitchen. Feminists from Italy would argue that the hegemony of the plant is the same as a masculine blind spot.

Challenges and Responses

The Italian workerism is faced with the task of addressing the shifts in capitalist development which they had not anticipated like the global economic crisis, the restructuring of production, and the decline of factory hegemony (Heider & Mohandesi 80). Any effort to establish this theoretical problematic will have to give responses to this historical challenge and still be able to go through the warning by Panzieri which is the risk of lapsing into a philosophy of history supported by the ontologization of labor. Tronti argued that while it is right to study the working class but they are the only ones who can study it correctly. Even though the introduction of the class composition views capitalism with industrial labor and the social world that was a result of the postwar boom it still at the same time made provisions of a method which could have could trace the constitution and shift of labor power in the aspect global crisis and uneven development (Heider & Mohandesi 80).


Tronti claims that the fixation that both he and his counterparts have in the industrial working class has changed into an unresolved problem. He goes ahead to argue that the working class was the last great historical form of social aristocracy. The working class was a minority in the midst of the people, and its struggles changed capitalism but were unable to change the world and the reason for this is yet to be understood.

Work cited

Haider and S. Mohandesi, “Workers’ Inquiry: A Genealogy,” in Viewpoint, 3 (2013), 1-99. Retrieved from:

May 02, 2023

Economics Science

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Workers Karl Marx Theory

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