Operai Italian workers during the 'Hot Autumn'

Sean Ledwith looks at the origins and the limitations of autonomism

Seeing the election exit poll for the first time on May 7th is a moment that is now scarred on the political memory of millions across the country. The following few hours when it became horribly apparently that the poll had actually underestimated the size of the Tory majority will have resulted in many on the left feeling shell-shocked and demoralised. In the brief period since that nightmarish experience we have witnessed two distinctive reactions from the labour movement-one depressingly predictable but the other a huge source of hope.

The former is the pitiful spectacle of Miliband’s putative successors falling over each other in a scramble to denounce their former leader as too left-wing and to associate themselves with the Blairite buzz-word of aspiration (mainstream code for greed). The more uplifting reaction has been the thousands who have participated in hastily-arranged anti-austerity demonstrations and rallies in numerous English cities such as Bristol, Manchester and Sheffield. The latter are inspirational evidence that powerful and sizeable resistance can still be organised to Cameron’s renewed onslaught on the public sector and all those who depend on it.

Amid this hugely promising response, however, is a danger that some involved in such events may believe that traditional organisations of the left such as the trade unions and the Labour Party are now obsolete and should be bypassed. 

This notion may develop further into the view that any type of formal leadership is counter-productive and that the way forward for radical politics is total avoidance of anything resembling an organisation with a hierarchy.

To some extent, such a view is understandable in light of Labour’s current plight and the absence of large-scale strike action; however, it would be a serious strategic mistake to adopt this perspective as it would only serve to weaken the embryonic resistance we are now witnessing across the country. This hostility to formal organisation by sections of the left – sometimes known as autonomism – has failed in the past so this is an appropriate opportunity to consider why it would be equally misguided now. 

Italian origins

Autonomism has its roots in the thinking of elements of the Italian left in the early 1960s that found themselves in a not dissimilar situation to the UK today.

At that time, the Italian Communist Party appeared to have abandoned any serious revolutionary pretensions and made its peace with the capitalist state and its parliamentary institutions. Likewise, the trade unions affiliated to the PCI seemed content not to rock the reformist boat and to downplay their role to little more than localised negotiations.

Anti-austerity campaigners in the UK today might be tempted to replicate the exasperation felt by sections of the Italian radical left at the apparent docility of the dominant organisations of their labour movement. In the Italian case, this exasperation expressed itself in the publication of the Red Notebooks in 1961 by a group of radical leftist intellectuals and disillusioned union activists who formulated a view that established organisations such as the PCI and its partner trade unions were as big an obstacle to social progress as the more conventional pillars of capitalism such as the police, army and judiciary.

This rejection of the compromises associated with the reformist left was initially dubbed workerism due to its preference for unorthodox forms of resistance such as unofficial strike action, industrial sabotage and absenteeism. As a critique of the excessive electoralism practised by the PCI, the perspective of workerism was not without merit and appeared to have been validated from the end of the decade when Italy was the scene of an escalating period of mass strikes, including the famous Hot Autumn of 1969.

Focused on the giant car factories in the north of the country, many of these strikes were spearheaded by young activists who spurned the traditional organisations of the union apparatus and intentionally pursued demands that appeared to be incompatible with conventional mediation. The crucial failure of the workerist perspective, however, was to under-estimate the resilience of reformist consciousness among large sections of the Italian working class.

Just as in other parts of Western Europe in this period, the conventional organisations of the left managed to regain control of upsurges from below and re-establish their ideological hegemony. Far from being discredited as stooges of the system, as the thinkers of workers had predicted, the PCI resumed its incremental accumulation of electoral support and make significant progress from the mid-1970s.

Likewise, in our situation, it is short-sighted to believe hundreds and thousands of Labour supporters are immediately going to abandon the party after the disaster of May 7th. The attachment to the party by English workers has evolved over decades and will not be easily overcome. It will require a long period of consistent campaigning by socialists outside the party, alongside those still within it, to prompt a significant breakaway to the left.

Blaming the victims

Following the downturn of their fortunes from the late 1970s, the workerists in Italy adopted another perspective that might tempt some of the radical left in the UK today but which is utterly disastrous-blaming the working class itself for the political situation. 

Antonio Negri, the most influential thinker from this tradition, began to emphasise the concept of autonomy in the sense of supposedly liberating the oppressed from the restrictions not only of the capitalist state but also the orthodox institutions of the labour movement such as the trade unions. Negri tried to draw a distinction between what he termed the mass worker and the social worker.

The former referred to the majority of the working class, operating in factories and blue-collar industries, who had allegedly been duped by the system and could no longer be considered as agents of emancipation; the latter were the new hope of revolutionary politics such as students, the unemployed and migrants. Negri argued these groups existed outside the nexus of capitalist society and that they were immune from the class collaboration supposedly practised by mass workers. He even went so far as to suggest those in permanent, full-time employment were the enemies of social progress, writing in 1979:

‘In as much as they are living off this political income (even some who work in the large factories), they are stealing and expropriating proletarian surplus value – they are participating in the social-labour racket on the same terms as their bosses. These positions – and particularly the union practice that fosters them – are to be fought, with violence if necessary.’

The potential here for a fatal splintering of the working class into supposedly progressive and reactionary elements is obvious. Negri’s view prefigures those in the modern autonomist movement such as Guy Standing who look to the so-called precariat as the new agents of liberation. He has identified this category as the following:

‘It consists of a multitude of insecure people, living bits-and-pieces lives, in and out of short-term jobs, without a narrative of occupational development, including millions of frustrated educated youth who do not like what they see before them, millions of women abused in oppressive labour, growing numbers of criminalised tagged for life…’

Like Negri before him, Standing underestimates the organic connections between the working class and the so-called precariat. As we are all too aware in the current era, the former are rarely free from the ever-present threat of redundancy and the latter can find themselves repeatedly in and out of the labour market due to zero-hours contracts. Jan Breman has correctly noted the decisive weakness of this assumption of a fatally divided working class that underscores much of autonomist thinking today:

‘The political lesson to be drawn from this is not to rank the various fractions of the workforce in a sequence from greater to lesser vulnerability, as Standing would, but rather todevelop strategies that underline their commonalities—to form alliances between organized and informal sectors, not to pit them against each other.’

Myth peddling

In the wake of the general election when sections of the working class appear to have succumbed to Tory or Ukip propaganda, the temptation can arise on the left to dismiss organised labour as the main lever of social change and to follow the example of Negri and Standing and look to allegedly more progressive forces on the margins on society.

Contrary to the myth-peddling currently underway by the Blairites in the party, however, Labour’s share of the vote in the 2015 election actually increased but not by enough to compensate for the four million votes they have shed since 1997. It is clear that many workers did respond positively to Ed Miliband’s occasional recognition of the inequalities of British society but that he did not make this a consistent enough component of Labour’s appeal.

Occupy and after

Autonomist thinking has become particularly influential on the left as a consequence of the Arab Spring and the global Occupy movement triggered by it at the beginning of this decade. As both these upsurges appeared to both operate outside the mainstream political arena of their respective countries and be essentially based on the mass occupation of public spaces, they seemed to many to lend credence to the autonomist view that radical politics in the 21st century was no longer about the conventional strategies of electoralism or trade union struggle.

Naomi Klein has argued the avoidance of clear leadership or horizontalism, as this view has become known, is the lesson we should learn from such events:

‘One of the great strengths of this model of laissez-faire organizing is that it has proven extraordinarily difficult to control, largely because it is so different from the organizing principles of the institutions and corporations it targets. It responds to corporate concentration with a maze of fragmentation, to globalization with its own kind of localization, to power consolidation with radical power dispersal.’

The fate of both movements, in Egypt and the US however, is sobering evidence that absence of structural organisation among oppositional forces may provide a heady feeling of liberation for a short period; but without the emergence of a leadership capable of responding effectively to the machinations of the elite, that window of opportunity will be slammed shut with brute force. Trotsky neatly encapsulated the appropriate relationship between an organised leadership within a mass movement of resistance:

‘Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston box. But nevertheless, what moves things is not the piston or the box but the steam.’

Autonomists like to claim any such aspirational leadership will inevitably reproduce the tyrannical hierarchies of capitalism we seek to overthrow. Such pessimism is just a variant of the ruling class myth that socialism is impossible because human nature is fundamentally selfish. The impressive People’s Assembly forums and marchers we have witnessed since May 7th are testimony to the ability of socialists inside and outside the Labour Party to respond to local leadership in a spirit of open debate and common purpose.

Hopefully these types of events will multiply over the coming months and years, allowing the piston box to take shape and ensuring in future upsurges the forces seeking to liberate humanity are as well-organised as those seeking to oppress it.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters