Autonomist Marxism: three themes, three critiques

Martin Thomas

A critical survey of "autonomist" Marxism, from its origins in Italian "operaismo" in the 1960s through to the writings today of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt.

Other material on this site:

Review of Negri and Hardt's "Empire"

Autonomism, workerism, and Trotskyism in Italy;

Review of Steve Wright's book on the history of autonomism in the 1960s and 70s.

On other sites:

A compact summary of autonomism, in the form of an interview with the American autonomist Harry Cleaver by Massimo De Angelis:

Mario Tronti's "Lenin in England" and other "operaista" texts:

Exuberance, radical anti-Stalinism, and a keen eye for the molecular rebellions developing under the carapace of bureaucratised, media-filtered official politics - any viable Marxism today needs these qualities.

"Autonomist" Marxism has them, or seems to have them.

It originates in currents of the Italian left first called "workerist" (in the 1960s) and then (from about 1973) "autonomist".

Italy had the strongest Communist Party of any advanced capitalist country. In the late 1960s and the 1970s it would have the stormiest struggles, and the biggest far left, of any capitalist country. The Trotskyists were weak, and split in 1968, many of them going over to variants of Maoism. "Autonomism" comes from that ferment.

As an organised current, it was marginalised after 1979. Toni Negri and other autonomist writers, notably in the USA, have continued to write. Negri's Empire, co-written with Michael Hardt, has become a best-seller. Autonomist Marxism now contains a wide range of different politics.

Three themes of autonomist Marxism seem to me very valuable today. But autonomists, I think, have developed all three in such a way as to mystify them. The dialogue and debate with autonomist Marxists which is becoming possible today through the development of Social Forums should help us clarify those themes.


First, autonomism proposes a Marxism of class struggle rather than a Marxism of crisis.

In chapter 15 of Capital, volume 1, Marx argues that large-scale factory industry tends to develop "variation of labour, fluency of function, universal mobility of the labourer". It "imposes the necessity of recognising, as a fundamental law of production... fitness of the labourer for varied work, consequently the greatest possible development of his varied aptitudes".

It creates a more multifarious, mobile working class, with growing demands and intelligence which are sure to challenge the limitations imposed by capital. "It matures the contradictions and antagonisms of the capitalist form of production, and thereby provides, along with the elements for the formation of a new society, the forces for exploding the old one".

Capital reacts; but its reaction further matures the contradictions. "It would be possible to write quite a history of the inventions made since 1830, for the sole purpose of supplying capital with weapons against the revolts of the working class".

Picking up on these ideas, autonomism emphasises the role of working-class struggle in pushing forward and shaping capitalist development, and the need to look for the new subversive possibilities in each new phase of development. This emphasis is valuable today when discussing globalisation. It means looking for global resistance to global capital, rather than being simply "anti-globalisation" and thus often, de facto, falling into nationalistic or backward-looking stances.

There has also been a Marxism, or supposed Marxism, of crisis alongside the Marxism of class struggle.

Crisis-Marxism presents capitalism as always grinding onwards according to a set of more-or-less automatic economic laws. The working class figures in this development only as victim. Hope comes only from the fact that the economic laws eventually, and equally automatically, produce catastrophic crisis. If revolutionaries have meanwhile organised a sufficiently strong party by agitation against capitalism, then they can take over.

Elements of this strand of thought can be found as far back as the late 19th century. Its main development was in Stalinist cod-Marxism. French Trotskyists used to call this doctrine, as relayed by the French Communist Party, "miserabilism".

For complicated reasons, rooted in the extraordinary stresses of the 1940s and late 1930s, crisis-Marxism has also infected Trotskyism. We have to get rid of that infection in order to get rid of the bureaucratic conception of the revolutionary party that goes along with crisis-Marxism, and to reinstate an idea of the revolutionary party as helping to develop the subversive logic of workers' struggles by informing them with the systematised memory of past struggles.

In the 1960s the autonomists' approach arose from dissatisfaction with a bureaucratised Italian labour movement. Many of the core activists of that movement had been formed in the Resistance of the 1940s. The twenty-year-old radicals of the 1940s were now 40 years old, and had been trained in disappointment for 15 years or more. The autonomists looked "beneath" them to the young workers in the huge new factories in northern Italy.

A similar attention to "murmuring among the proletariat" inaudible or incomprehensible to older trade unionists is advisable today. In Britain 57% of trade unionists are over 40 years old (Labour Market Trends, July 2002, p.349). Among trade union reps and activists the proportion over 40 must be even higher.

The trade unionist who is 45 today was 20 when Thatcher took office in 1979 and trade-union membership started declining from its peak; 26 when the miners were defeated in 1985. He or she was attracted to trade unionism by the strong, confident trade-union movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s, but has since been trained in resisting decline, limiting damage, and dealing with individual grievances, rather than collective self-liberation.

A new radical generation is emerging, slowly and piecemeal. When it will start to shake the factories and offices, we do not know. Its dynamics will not be the same as those of the young workers in the huge new factories of northern Italy in 1968, who were almost all men, mostly from peasant families in southern Italy; nor the same as those of the older trade unionists "above" it. We will need to look closely and sensitively to what the autonomists (adapting Marx's concept "composition of capital") call the "class composition".

In some autonomist writing, however, the idea of workers' initiatives shaping capitalist development is stretched so far that it buries any close attention to class composition and the development of struggle beneath general enthusiasm for all "autonomous" rebellion.

Capitalist development does have laws and structures. The capitalist class has strategies. Not everything it does is a simple reaction to workers' initiative. That we be urged to look closely for workers' initiative is good; that we be instructed that all capitalist developments can be no other than responses to workers' initiatives is mystification.

On the workers' side, there is a difference between the mute, molecular resistance which may slow down the pace of a job and impel employers to re-equip or reorganise, and conscious, collective, political initiative. There is a difference (though certainly not a dividing wall) between defensive and offensive struggles.

But in some autonomist writing all capitalist development is indiscriminately attributed to capital being pushed forward by workers' refusals. Thus workers' activity need not be investigated in specifics: it can simply be deduced to have been operative from the outward fact of capitalist change.

A struggle-Marxist approach thus inverts itself into a variant of crisis-Marxist approach, with the peculiar feature that capitalism is deemed to be always in crisis because always shaken by workers' refusals.


Second, autonomism stresses workers' autonomy as the guiding principle of Marxist politics.

It stands in contrast both to "developmentalism", which has Marxists guide their political choices by the criterion of what best aids progressive development in general, and to "negativism", which has the criterion of what most militantly impedes, opposes, or negates actual capitalist development.

The old "orthodox" neo-Trotskyist stance, which sided (critically) with the Stalinist states on the grounds that despite suppressing the working class they represented "progress", exemplifies "developmentalism". Current kitsch "anti-imperialism", which sides (usually vaguely and by implication, rather than forthrightly) with Islamic fundamentalism, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, or anti-euro agitation, on the grounds that they will most readily deliver a blow to "imperialism" (i.e. the USA or the EU), exemplifies "negativism".

Against these approaches, we in AWL have argued for the "Third Camp" tradition, which means making primary the self-assertion of the working class as an independent "camp" in politics. Even when we argue for the working class to take sides in a battle not strictly class-against-class, we argue for it to do so on its own criteria of national self-determination or other democratic principle, with its own methods, and retaining its independence.

For us, the political distinctness of the working class from "the people" in general (even if working-class organisations can and should support peasants', students' or other struggles), and the building of an independent workers' political party, are essential to workers' autonomy.

The Italian workerists of the 1960s agreed. They criticised the PCI because it "refused to work to consolidate the party as an autonomous political force, tying it instead to the fate of a generic 'people'."

But in the 1970s the workerists, becoming autonomists, redefined the working class. The revolutionaries in the big factories, influential in 1968-9, were marginalised again after 1970. Capitalists began to reduce the huge factories, to introduce robots and microelectronic controls, and to disperse production to smaller sites and to sub-contractors. The autonomists claimed to see a tendency, with high-technology capitalism, for direct productive time to become less important, and capitalist control over the whole process of producing and reproducing labour-power more important.

The "mass worker", the "collective worker" in the huge factory, had been the defining figure of class composition since the 1920s, so they argued. Now the defining figure was the "socialised worker", which included everyone drawn into that capitalist control over the production and reproduction of labour-power, students, housewives, everyone. Negri's more recent term, "multitude", has similar content to "socialised worker".

The redefinition had the immediate political advantage for the autonomists that they could continue to argue that the working class was still at revolutionary boiling-point even after their setbacks in the big factories. It had analytical disadvantages.

It gave an overdrawn picture of post-1970s capitalism as "totalitarian", based on all-embracing political control over life, rather than what Marx called "the dull compulsion of economic relations". Simultaneously it glorified every act of social refusal. It made "refusal" its watchword, and glorified every example, however individualistic or even nihilistic, as representing "spontaneous and elementary communism" and thus throwing capitalism into perpetual crisis.

Autonomists have reinterpreted autonomy as meaning autonomy from unions and parties, or even autonomy from other sectors of the working class. "Autonomous" comes to mean... fragmentary and unorganised.

For class organisation, autonomists substitute the concept "circulation of struggles" (an adaptation of Marx's "circulation of capital"). And they virtually rule out class politics.

Marx explained class politics with the example of the working day. In every workplace there is a molecular battle as individual workers and small groups of workers seek gaps and pauses in the working day, and the employer seeks to fill them up. At a certain level of workers' collective self-awareness and confidence, that battle becomes an organised one, with unions winning agreements at the level of workplaces and then industries. At the next level, the battle becomes political - one to establish limits on the working day by law for every workplace, even those without union organisation - and the workers move towards forming their own political party to pursue what Marx called "the political economy of the working class... social production controlled by social foresight".

This is a logic specific to the working class as a class, not common to every act of social rebellion.

For some autonomists, only the molecular form of the battle would count as "autonomous". Consequently they reject the whole idea of overthrowing capitalist state power and creating a new workers' state power. They replace the unrealistic talk by the Italian far left in the early 1970s about "insurrection" and the formation of an "armed party" as immediate tasks by its direct inversion.

They look to "the affirmation of the movement itself as an 'alternative society'... To conquer and control its own 'spaces' - this became the dominant form of struggle..." The quotation is from Negri in 1983 (Revolution retrieved, p.236); the same idea has been expounded in a recent book by John Holloway, Change the world without taking power: the meaning of revolution today).

Thus it is that the politics of autonomism today can vary from caricature anarchism ("we want to riot, not to work", as one autonomist tract put it) through to mild reformism (Yann Moulier Boutang, editor of the French autonomist journal Multitudes, is a respectable member of a respectable government party in France, the Greens).


Third, autonomism is anti-Stalinist. The workerists and the 1970s autonomists saw the USSR as state-capitalist. The pioneer workerist, Raniero Panzieri, who died in 1964, had written of "the repetition of capitalist forms in the relations of production both at the factory level and at the level of the overall production - all this, behind the ideological screen of the identification of socialism with planning, and of the possibility of socialism in one country only".

The paradox here arose immediately in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Almost all the Italian far left of that period was "soft Maoist" - meaning that they did not rigidly echo the Beijing line, or necessarily repeat Mao's endorsement of Stalin, but hailed China as socialist and Mao as a great Marxist. The workerists and autonomists went along with this. Even today (in Empire) Negri puts on the same level "the communist revolutions of 1917 [in Russia, by the workers] and 1949 [in China, by Mao's Stalinists]"; the US autonomist Harry Cleaver, in the 2000 edition of his book Reading Capital Politically reprints without comment his endorsement of "the great Chinese cultural revolution" of 1966-7 as "rais[ing] the banner of popular revolt".

Some autonomists today would dismiss the 1917 revolution as state-capitalist from the start. That was certainly not the view of 1960s-70s workerism-autonomism, which was generally pro-Bolshevik, even if later in the 1970s it moved on to the idea that Bolshevism was outdated with a new "class composition"; and seems not to be the view of Negri today.

But how can advocates of workers' autonomy give credence to the socialist claims of Mao's China, in which the working class always had if anything even less space for movement than in Stalin's USSR?

Two elements of autonomist thought seem to explain the paradox. First, they did not analyse the specifics of Stalinism. They saw the USSR as state-capitalist primarily because of its resemblances to Western capitalist states which they saw (over-simplistically) as moving smoothly towards more and more comprehensive planning. The ways in which the USSR differed from the West could seem to them "communist", only insufficient. The "cultural revolution", spectacularly different from the West, could seem "communist", even if it was catastrophic and repressive for the working class.

Second, the blurring of the idea of workers' autonomy into enthusiasm for fragmented rebellion could enable the chaos of the "cultural revolution" to appear as "autonomous" struggle.


Other material on this site:

Review of Negri and Hardt's "Empire"

Autonomism, workerism, and Trotskyism in Italy;

Review of Steve Wright's book on the history of autonomism in the 1960s and 70s.

On other sites:

A compact summary of autonomism, in the form of an interview with the American autonomist Harry Cleaver by Massimo De Angelis:

Mario Tronti's "Lenin in England" and other "operaista" texts: