Chris Harman

Thinking it through

The overall movement

(May 2001)

From Socialist Review, No.252, May 2001.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Automonist ideas seem radical, says Chris Harman but they would mean not nearly enough change

In every real movement there are people who proclaim they have absolutely new ideas but in fact are reiterating very old ones. The anti-capitalist movement is no exception. Naomi Klein has been arguing that there is no need any longer to worry about overthrowing the power of the existing state. Instead we can walk round it, as you walk round a boulder that’s obstructing a footpath, by constructing local ‘autonomies’ that are out of its reach. She presents as her example of what can be done Marcos and the Zapatistas. They have, according to her, shown that there is no need to break the power of the state to achieve the movement’s goals.

The Zapatista rising on New Year’s Day 1994 was for many people an inspiration, representing the first public challenge to the supposed worldwide victory of capitalism after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Last month’s march on Mexico City to address the country’s congress was a brilliant piece of propaganda. But the simple, harsh truth is that the Zapatistas are nowhere near achieving the goals they set themselves seven years ago.

In her speech to the congress, Comandanta Esther did not challenge the neoliberalism of the recently elected president Fox (a former Coca-Cola executive), seemed deliberately to distance herself from Marcos, and restricted herself to the absolutely justified but much narrower concerns of the country’s 10 percent indigenous minority. In language which could have been that of a trade union leader calling for negotiations, she insisted, ‘We have not come here to humiliate anyone, to defeat anyone or to supplant anyone. We have come so that you can listen to us and we can listen to you. We have come to dialogue.’ It can be argued that the Zapatistas have no choice but to try for some compromise, since they are hemmed in by 40,000 heavily armed troops. But that is not reason for people to turn necessity into a virtue and proclaim a restricted local ‘autonomy’ as a ‘new’ method of fighting the system.

Naomi Klein is not the only person in the anti-capitalist movement presenting the Zapatistas as providing a new model for change. So does the Italian group Ya Basta! whose name (meaning ‘enough!’) is taken from the first Zapatista proclamation in 1994. Wearing white overalls and using polystyrene shields to protect themselves from the police, its supporters have made a big impact, seeming to provide a highly visible alternative both to simple peaceful protests that the authorities ignore, and to the highly ineffective attacks on buildings and the police by groups of masked anarchists. Unfortunately, however, its ideas come from a tradition that has little to say about how to take on the global system.

Italy witnessed a rising wave of struggles from 1968 to 1975 which shook the country’s political establishment. Small revolutionary groups were suddenly leading mass movements, and intellectuals like Toni Negri and Mario Tronti argued that workers could spontaneously, through their own ‘autonomia’, overthrow the system without the need for a revolutionary party. But then in 1976 the Italian political establishment regained the initiative by incorporating into its ranks the most important oppositional force, the Communist Party – and with it the trade union leaderships. These suddenly threw all their weight into stopping workers’ struggles, and did so with devastating effect.

When a wave of student struggles broke out in 1977 they did so, for the first time for nearly a decade, in isolation from the workers’ movement, and the state took advantage of this to use the police viciously. Those ‘autonomist’ intellectuals who had believed workers would spontaneously overthrow the system had to reassess their ideas. Some like Tronti decided that, since the workers had followed the Communist Party, so would they. Others like Negri set out to redefine what the proletariat was.

It became for them virtually anyone who fought the system, especially the ‘marginal elements’ – the unemployed, students, squatters, temporary workers, ex-students who still hung around the universities. But without the backing of the core sections of the employed working class, the ‘marginal’ sectors were smashed in 1977-78 and Toni Negri himself was soon imprisoned. Unfortunately, however, this did not mean the end of the ideas he had been pushing. They were redefined so that ‘making the revolution’ became ‘self evaluating’ your own labour and living ‘autonomously’ apart from the main structures of the system. At the same time, autonomist theory became increasingly influenced by postmodernist thinkers like Foucault, for whom what mattered was ‘deconstructing’ the ideas that embodied power. In practice this amounted to nothing more than a more radical version of the formulation of Bernstein a century ago, that ‘the movement’ was ‘everything’ and the seizure of state power irrelevant.

Ya Basta! comes from this tradition, for all its talk of confronting the system. One of its leading figures, Luca, recently claimed that the present system rules by gaining consensus through a ‘bubble of meaning’, and that ‘we aim to capture this bubble and use it to create an alternative’. Dressing in white overalls makes ‘evident something that is hidden’. Confronting the system does not mean developing workers’ struggles, but calling ‘the general citizenship strike’ involving ‘not just workers – it’s about migrants, pensioners, the unemployed, all the “invisibles” whose lives have been atomised. The citizen is part of a group – the city – and as we are all citizens of the world.’ Such ideas cannot provide a perspective for breaking the hold of a system which threatens the whole of humanity with barbarism.

In the 1960s and again in the 1980s we had movements of tens of thousands of people in Britain attempting to stop the barbarity of nuclear weaponry by non-violent direct action. In Italy in 1977 sections of the student movement mocked the pretensions of the powers that be by dressing up as ‘Metropolitan Indians’. No magic victories resulted. Ya Basta!’s white overall actions are simply an infusion into non-violent direct action of the Metropolitan Indian approach, and do not add any new ingredient for success.

Non-violent protest and street theatre can be useful tactics in bringing people to see certain features of the present system. But you then need to go further. And that means looking not to those who live on its margins, but to those whose labour at the core of the system, in the cities of the world, keeps it going. People learnt in 1968 that students can, in certain circumstances, ignite wider class forces but not substitute for them. That is true of the anti-capitalist movement today.

Sections of the student movement dressed up as Metropolitan Indians

Last updated on 26 December 2009