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International Socialism, Spring 1980


Jack Fuller

The new workerism

The politics of the Italian autonomists


From International Socialism 2:8, Spring 1980.
Reprinted in International Socialism 2:92, Autumn 2001.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The publication of Working Class Autonomy and the Crisis by Red Notes and CSE Books gives English speaking socialists a substantial and serious account of the development of the autonomous current in Italy. [1] As such it fills an important gap, since not only are the autonomists the most numerous current to the left of the Communist Party in Italy, but their ideas are very slowly beginning to have an influence on parts of the left in Britain. Up till the publication of this book, information on the Italian autonomists has been almost non-existent outside the sensationalised and misleading reports of their activities which are occasionally reported in the press.

Their activities have certainly made the headlines in Italy. Last December [1979], for instance, over 100 autonomists armed with revolvers or molotovs took over the centre of Padua for almost an hour, with the police powerless to intervene. This is only the most recent of a series of mass activities that the autonomists have undertaken which highlight both their strength and their organisation. It is not just on the streets that the autonomists have made their mark. Over the last three years many of the most important and hard fought industrial struggles have been led or heavily influenced by them. They enjoy real mass support in many sections of the Italian working class, especially within the public sector. The autonomists do pose problems for the Italian ruling class. They have been the most important group opposing the entry of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) into the ruling parliamentary majority. As a result they have been savagely persecuted by the state, culminating in an incredible frame-up launched against the national leaders of the autonomists who were accused, amongst other things, of being the brains behind the Red Brigades. The aim of this article is not to show that these charges are a total fabrication – there is a defence committee in Britain which can handle that job. Rather, I want to examine the history and politics of the autonomists, and show that, while they are a serious political current and not urban terrorists, there are major weaknesses in both their theory and practice which have to be contested. [2]

First, some clarification is necessary. The autonomist current is not a formal organisation with a national structure. Rather, it is a series of independent groups based in a locality, workplace or around a particular issue. It has no national discipline and therefore no national strategy. Indeed, within a given city there may be two or more autonomous groups which are divided by serious theoretical or tactical differences. At a national level all that exists is a group of well known theoreticians who put forward analyses which are then rejected or integrated into the politics of the various groups. Yet the autonomists are a recognisable current in Italian politics by virtue of a series of concepts and themes which have been developed over the last 20 years by their theorists. It is these concepts which have to be examined.

The historical development of autonomism

The origins of the autonomous current can be traced back to the early 1960s. In October 1961 a group of intellectuals from the unions and the left wing of the Socialist Party (PSI) published the first issue of Quaderni Rossi (Red Notebooks). It was this theory – dubbed ‘workerist’ by its authors – in this and subsequent issues of the journal that formed the basis of what was to become autonomism.

The authors were attempting to analyse the new wave of workers’ struggles that were beginning to emerge after the bleak years of the Cold War. These struggles marked a real break from the past, not only in their scale, after a decade of relative passivity and defeat, but also in their objectives. For the demands and tactics of the strikers seemed to go far beyond the normal rules of ‘orderly industrial relations’. Thus workers began to reject the system of three-yearly contracts, demanding instead a continuous improvement in their conditions. In effect the workers were in struggle not just against their own management but against the industrial system as a whole, including the unions which bargained on their behalf within it. This challenge to the unions and the whole structure of power in industry was made explicit in 1962, when the first major strike at Fiat since the 1940s broke out. Not only was it the first expression of the new working class built up during the Italian ‘economic miracle’, but the hold of the unions over the process of bargaining was attacked when thousands of Fiat workers wrecked the headquarters of the UIL (one of the three national union federations) in Turin in protest against its divisive policies.

The wave of strikes in the early 1960s showed firstly that the working class was recovering from the defeats it had suffered, and secondly that there was space for working class activity outside the PCI and the unions. It was this that the autonomist theory attempted to analyse. At the heart of their theory was the rejection of the PCI’s strategy of ‘hegemony’, where the key role of the working class was to make itself acceptable to the other ‘progressive’ social classes through a series of inter-class alliances. These could only be set up and strengthened if the working class was prepared, at certain points, to make compromises and concessions, to break from the ‘corporatist’ interests of the class.

For the workerists this was both out of date and un-marxist. Against the PCI they argued that the working class and the state had radically changed since the war. The introduction of assembly lines had destroyed the traditions and skills which had divided the working class in the past. They argued that the old productivist conciousness had lost its appeal, that the traditional socialist idea of the working class being the only material producers of a new society and therefore having a conscious pride in their specific skill had been broken down. Rather, the working class was dominated by the ‘mass worker’, the assembly line worker without skills or traditions who was not bound by any false ties of loyalty to the firm or industry. This ‘mass worker’ was the key revolutionary subject.

The theorists of this new ‘workerism’ not only attacked the reformist analyses of the PCI – they also set their faces firmly against any ‘Third Worldist’ view of revolution. For them, the revolution had to start in the heartland of capitalism, with the most exploited workers using the highest techniques of production developed by capitalism. The workerists in the early 1960s were thus an essentially healthy reaction to the role of the PCI and the unions as the class struggle moved from a defensive to an offensive period. By insisting on the primacy of the industrial working class and the class struggle as the instrument of social change, the workerists were rescuing a concept which had been buried for 25 years. In doing so, they were reflecting the changes that were taking place deep within society as Italy industrialised rapidly in the post-war boom.

However, they went far beyond restating some essential truths about revolution and making some acute observations about the state of the working class movement. They also developed new ideas about capitalist development and the role of the working class in a post-Keynesian economy. For the workerists, the traditional forms of workers’ struggles as practised by the reformists did not pose a threat to the stability of the system. Rather, they believed that the struggle could actually push capitalist development forward and dynamise production. Capitalism needs the active involvement, the ‘inventiveness’, of the working class to develop. Without it, it would stagnate.

While there was and is obviously some truth in this, it was taken to absurd lengths by the workerists. Mario Tronti, for instance, wrote:

When capital reaches a high level of development, it no longer limits itself to guaranteeing collaboration of the workers ... something it so badly needs. At significant points it now makes a transition, to the point of expressing its objective needs through the subjective demands of the workers ... The spectre of capitalist necessities of production being imposed as working class demands, in the struggle, is a recurrent theme in the history of capital ... The platform of demands that the trade union puts forward is already controlled by those on whom it is supposed to be imposed ... Through the trade union struggle working class demands can be nothing more than the reflection of capital’s necessities. [3]

Now obviously this statement is an enormous distortion. It is true that in periods of boom one of the effects of working class struggle may be to force industry as a whole to introduce increasing amounts of capital. Individual capitalists may suffer but the system as a whole expands. But, and this is what the workerists ignored, that same working class struggle can have great destabilising effects on capitalism, however much it is mediated through trade union structures. Otherwise one would have to explain how the strike movement of 1972 in Britain, most of it official, in some way was ‘a reflection of capital’s necessities’.

The conclusions from the workerist theorists were clear. For the working class to satisfy their basic needs, partial economic struggles under official union leadership are not sufficient. In fact these can be used against the working class in that they can strengthen capitalism. What was needed was a response which based itself solely on the ‘working class point of view’ – one which did not take into account whether its demands were compatible with capitalist development. In fact a key slogan of the workerists, printed on the cover of the book, is ‘The bosses’ crisis is the workers’ victory’.

The key concept arising from this group was that of ‘working class autonomy’. If capitalism had historically used the working class as a force for development and appropriated their demands, then a precondition for the liberation of the class was its separation, its ‘autonomy’ from capitalism at a political level. What this meant was a subjective non-acceptance of the system, a day by day revolt. In practice it meant the ‘strategy of refusal’ – the refusal of workers to be integrated into the production process. This could be achieved through absenteeism, wildcat strikes or other unofficial action. The key point, though, was that workers had to fight for themselves and not leave the struggle to their union or party. Only in this way could a new organisation of the working class be built.

The working class, the workerist theorists held, had an urgent need for a new political organisation, a new type of revolutionary party, which provided the class with a ‘tactical brain’ for the revolution rather than an ideology (as the PCI was accused of doing). From the writings of the workerists a highly elitist version of the party emerges:

… only through a subjective conscious intervention from ‘on high’ ... which allows you to master the functioning of the system to be destroyed can you foresee and anticipate the turning points in the cycle of capital’s development, can you measure, control, manage and thus organise the political growth of the working class, obliging it to go through a whole chain of different confrontations at different levels and on some of these occasions break the chain. reverse the relationship between the parties and smash the state machine. [4]

Against all of these concepts there are many objections to be raised. Rather than criticise them in theory, it is better to look at how they were put into practice by a mass movement in the two periods where they enjoyed mass support, 1968–1973 and 1977 onwards.

1967 to 1977: the development of ‘workers’ autonomy’

In the early 1960s the workerist theorists were outside the process of constructing any revolutionary party. However, they did influence some working class militants and a wide circle of young intellectuals who were to become the cadre of the revolutionary left after the wave of working class struggle in 1968–1969. For the struggles of the late 1960s and early 1970s seemed to vindicate many of the ideas of the workerists. The ‘mass workers’ of the great northern factories did reject the traditional rules of industrial relations, they did raise demands incompatible with the continued development of capitalism,and they did reject the mediation of the traditional organisations of the working class.

Groups basing themselves on the writings of the workerists began to grow rapidly as their analyses of the working class, at least inside the factories, appeared to be vindicated. The most important groups in which ‘workerist’ ideas were strongest were Lotta Continua (Continuous Struggle) and Potere Operaio (Workers’ Power). It was the latter especially which developed the workerist theory both in writing and in practice, and from which many of the cadre of the autonomous movement emerged in the mid-1970s.

According to the theorists of Potere Operaio (PO) – who included many who were part of the original group of workerists such as Antonio Negri – the workers’ struggles of 1968–1973 destroyed the post-war Keynesian economic equilibrium. The state, which for 20 years had been the arbiter of social struggles, utilising them and mediating them, had now become the ‘state of crisis’. This new state, representing the whole of the capitalist class, took over the functions of that class. Further, unlike the previous period, capitalist development could now only take place on the basis of a workers’ defeat. That defeat could come about as capitalism restructured itself, splitting the unity of the class, and using increased repression against the most militant sections of the vanguard.

The ways it attempted to control the class included ‘changing the relationship between trade unions, political parties and the state. The unions were now [1972–1973] told explicitly that their institutional function was to convince the workers to stop fighting – or else to bear the burden of continued recession ... As for parliament, political parties became organs of the state, and achieving law and order became a priority for all’. [5] For PO, then, the PCI was a part of an increasingly repressive state machine while the unions’ role was merely to hold back the class struggle.

Throughout those five years of struggle PO did not work in the unions, or the factory councils which emerged from the strikes of 1968–1969. Instead it denounced all forms of delegate democracy, attempting to develop a new form of mass democracy based on workers’ assemblies. They relied on mass meetings rather than any form of committee structure. The reason for PO’s abstention from the unions and factory councils was its insistence on the need for workers’ autonomy – workers’ separation from the schemes of capitalism, which PO believed were introduced into the working class struggle by the unions and parties. PO’s project was to develop this rejection of the schemes of capital by the working class. Thus, while it led many important struggles over such basic issues as wages, safety, conditions, etc., its main emphasis (and what distinguished it from the myriad different currents developing in the struggles of that time) was on demands absolutely at variance with any further development of capitalism. Thus it glorified such things as sabotage in the factories, violence against overseers or ‘unrealistic’ wage demands: ‘If they offer us ten, we’ll ask for 100. If they offer us 100, we’ll ask for 1,000.’

Such a strategy would only bear some relationship with reality if the struggle was continually rising and expanding, and if the traditional organisations were swept away by the scale of the movement. By 1972–1973 it was clear that this was no longer happening. The spontaneous struggle of the workers was gradually declining, as were the workers’ assemblies. The factory councils, deserted by PO, were by now largely under the control of the PCI and the unions. As the workplace struggle declined, PO increasingly lost its raison d’etre. It attempted to move to a highly disciplined national organisation as a way of staving off the impending crisis of political direction. Its working class base refused to follow it, so instead PO dissolved itself into the ‘movement’. Whilst no one denied the need for national organisation, none of the subsequent attempts at organisation got off the ground.

Between 1969 and 1971 PO had been a relatively successful organisation. It had grown rapidly and organised or influenced many thousands of workers. It had also developed and applied many of the workerists’ most important concepts. It can be taken as the high point of workerist praxis. Yet as a project PO failed. Its analysis of Italian society and the strategy it developed from that were clearly incorrect.

The key problem, perhaps, was the failure to distinguish between its acute analysis of the ‘mass worker’ – the new vanguard inside the big factories-and the situation amongst the class as a whole. For while many of the big factories in the north were in ferment throughout that period, the structures of power outside those factories, while dented, remained intact. The unions and PCI, far from losing support, which one would expect if they were merely tools of the state, were in fact growing. PO had made the fatal mistake of confusing the subjective feelings of a part of the class both with the consciousness of the class as a whole and with the revolutionary potential of the period.

Thus PO could see the instances of sabotage or mass absenteeism when the economic struggle inside the factories was declining as a sign of the increasing maturity of the revolution and the class consciousness of the workers. It is surely much more likely that such acts were the results of increasing demoralisation in the possibility of mass rank and file action, given the lack of any structures capable of organising such a struggle. The mistaken analysis can perhaps best be illustrated in the following passage, which is an assessment of the 1973 struggle at Fiat – a struggle that was won, but which was the last major conflict there until the wave of strikes last summer [1979]:

Every act of attack has been a search for a form of struggle that would pay immediately. The entire sequence of forms of struggle has developed as a process of perfecting a system of power. The masses exercised this power, while the vanguards indicated the terrain on which to move. From this point of view the liquidation of the union, of the delegates [shop stewards] could hardly have been more profound. The vanguards did not present themselves as a substitution for the archaic trade union functions. On the contrary, they presented the immediate terrain of the struggle for power. The synthesis of political and economic action, which is always a characteristic of the revolutionary struggle of the working class, happened here immediately, at the level of the exercise of power.

In the same article the author looked at the ‘vanguard’: ‘The Mirafiori [one of the Fiat plants] Party is thus an actuality of working class power, consequently an armed actuality, a reply matched to the level of the power balance between the two classes in struggle.’ [6]

Reading these two passages, the impression that is given is that Italy is on the brink of revolution – the unions have been swept away by the mass workers’ movement, and the class struggle has reached the point where it is necessary to arm the workers. Yet what was the reality? The unions were increasing in size and strength, and two years later the PCI won its biggest ever victory in the local elections. The workerists had got it right when they said there was a general radicalisation of the working class centred around the ‘mass worker’ in the big factories, but they got it badly wrong when they tried to apply that to the rest of society. While great opportunities were open to revolutionaries, reformism was and is a strong current inside the Italian working class, and was certainly not dead.

PO not only did not understand that it also made the reformists’ job that much easier by abstaining from the fight to win people from the traditional organisations of the class. At the heart of this mistake was the concept of the ‘workers’ point of view’. For what this idea obscured was the fact that workers’ consciousness is not a homogenous, static object. Rather it is split and divided within the class with some workers being revolutionary while others still remain with the reformists. The workerists had moved by a narrowing of the ‘workers’ point of view’ to an identification of social reality with their own subjective desires.

Autonomism from 1973 to the present day

The dissolution of PO into the ‘autonomous movement’, ie into a series of locally based collectives, marked the end of a whole period in workerist thought. The concept of a single national organisation was temporarily abandoned. Instead the name Autonomia Operaia (Workers’ Autonomy) was adopted by a growing number of small groups and collectives based around workplaces, geographical areas or particular groups of the population such as the unemployed or students. The universities in particular became an important base for the autonomists, no longer as centres for well educated, middle class, discontented students, but as a huge meeting place for unemployed youth.

Throughout the mid-1970s various autonomous groups carried on a political intervention in their workplaces and localities. These struggles varied enormously in their aims. They included organising mass refusal to pay fares on buses, squatting, or ‘self reduction’ of rents, telephone bills, etc. In the workplaces too the autonomists led many mass struggles (notably amongst health workers), often in the face of bitter opposition from the unions or the PCI. However, as the PCI asserted its discipline in the factories so the industrial struggle died down. The social base of the autonomists became increasingly those sections excluded (or ‘marginalised’, as the autonomists would say) from the productive process. These sectors were not only alienated from capitalist production but also felt alienated from the nationally organised revolutionary left. The rapid shift to the right taking place within such groups as Lotta Continua and Democrazia Proletaria meant they were no longer in tune with these sectors of their traditional base. Further, their mode of political work, internal structure and total lack of sensitivity in dealing with phenomena such as the emerging women’s movement meant there was a wholesale rejection of the traditions and organisations of the groups.

Feeling disillusioned and betrayed by the revolutionary parties, these sectors were far more responsive to the autonomists, who did not have a national structure and placed such great emphasis on the subjectivity of the participants within any struggle. The autonomists and the movements interacted with each other to bring about a major shift in the ideology of the former workerists. For not only did the autonomist groups appear to offer an alternative to the authoritarian groups of the traditional revolutionary left, but the movements gave the autonomist current a real social milieu to work in.

During the rebellion of spring 1977 these movements presented immense opportunities for the autonomists. [7] They had much stronger roots in these areas than the traditional left, and were prepared to give the movement its head rather than impose any direction on it. The year 1977 saw a spontaneous outbreak of violence against the state, police, party system, bourgeois education and culture. It had no programme, no strategy, nor even any real aims. The autonomists did not lead that movement but merely expressed or reflected its moods. The ‘movement of 1977’ could not last-the state cracked down, banning demonstrations, sending police and troops into the universities, and arresting leaders and rank and file members of Autonomia Operaia. As the movement in the universities died down, so Autonomia Operaia began to lose its most important social base. Further, the state repression weakened it badly. While Autonomia Operaia still exists (it is still the biggest current to the left of the PCI) it is much less powerful, much less self confident than it was a couple of years ago.

Obviously, the political practice of the autonomists in 1977 was very different from that of the workerists between 1968 and 1972, yet a continuity can be traced between those two movements both in terms of personnel and ideas. In many ways the ideas of today’s autonomists can be seen as the logical conclusion of those original concepts first developed by the workerists in the 1960s. But whereas the latter were an essentially healthy reaction to the PCI, the autonomists today represent the demoralisation of a whole generation of militants. They are demoralised above all by the rigidity and authoritarianism of the traditional left, but also by the fall in class struggle from the heady days of the late 1960s and early 1970s. A brief examination of the autonomists’ ideas on the state, the class and the party should be sufficient to show how much the original project of the workerists, to construct a real alternative to the PCI, has turned in on itself and away from all the traditions of revolutionary Marxism.

Class, party and state

The problems noted with the ideas of the workerists became magnified and grotesquely distorted as the autonomists developed. For theorists such as Toni Negri who span the two currents, the period of class struggle had brought about major changes in the role of the state. It was now ‘the crisis state’ using the economic crisis to inflict a major defeat on the whole working class. It attempted to do this by:

  1. pushing up unemployment;
  2. splitting up production – moving from a small number of massive factories to thousands of smaller ones;
  3. making use of domestic work, illegal moonlighting, etc.;
  4. using inflation as a means of reducing living standards by fixing the prices of the most important goods and services to destroy the unity of the class;
  5. using widespread repression against any who object to this process. As instruments the state uses not just the police, prisons, the law, etc., but also the parties and trade unions as adjuncts of the state.

The consequence of this for the autonomists is firstly a view of the state which literally uses ‘terrorism’ against the working class, in which the parties and unions are fully implicated, and in which the space left open to revolutionaries is extremely small. As we shall see, this has catastrophic consequences for their political practice.

The second consequence of this change in the state was that it took over the functions of the capitalist class as a whole. For many autonomists, Negri especially, the law of value is in crisis in advanced capitalist states, and the role of the state is to reimpose that discipline on the whole of society. Therefore, they go on to argue, the whole of society has now become involved in the process of production, far outside the boundaries of the factory. Instead of the ‘mass worker’ being the revolutionary subject, attention now shifts to the ‘social worker’, i.e. ‘that working class subject who is defined by Negri ... as the extension of the “mass worker” to the sphere of the social reproduction of capital in the period when capital, through the crisis, attempts to revalorise work through social command – i.e. to enforce the wage-work nexus and unpaid surplus work over society by means of the state’. [8]

In other words, the working class is now not just factory workers and those who directly produce surplus value, but all those who are involved in the state’s schemes of restructuring the economy. Thus unemployed students are part of the working class, not merely by social origin (which many of them are), but by virtue of the fact that they are involved in and against the state’s plans for restructuring. Thus the effect of the state’s plans has been to change the composition of the working class to one where the class takes in all but a tiny minority of exploiters and state functionaries.

At this point a number of urgent questions have to be raised. First, is this a true picture of reality in Italy or, indeed, Britain? Is the space open to revolutionaries extremely small? Are the unions and traditional parties merely instruments of the state? Have the boundaries between productive and unproductive work been obliterated? The list could be extended almost indefinitely.

Without entering into a point by point discussion of each question, we can say that this analysis of the state is a huge over-exaggeration of certain trends that do exist. For instance, while it is true that in a period of crisis the reformist leaders of working class organisations are forced to increasingly come to the aid of capital and its state, one cannot say that the two are identical, or that there are no points of contradiction between the two. A second point that must be raised is that the analysis involves, at certain points, a real break from Marxism, for instance where it merges students into the working class. Both from a theoretical and political point of view they are not identical. To insist that the two are identical is to have all kinds of illusions in the role of students which events in the real world have never justified. A final point to be noted is the extreme optimism that runs through the analysis. The crisis has not demoralised or split the working class. Rather, it has led to a big extension of it, and an integral unity between it and other sections of the population in the concept of the ‘social worker’. Quite honestly, I just don’t believe this is true, certainly in Britain or, for that matter, in Italy. If anything, the opposite is probably true, with the crisis having accentuated the divisions within the class, and between it and other social groups. Certainly many of the social tensions that have increased in Britain (racism being the obvious example) over the last few years have been the indirect result of the economic and social crisis.

But the autonomists (or at least Toni Negri, whose last major book is printed in full in the collection by Red Notes) insist that a newer, higher unity has developed within the class. This optimism was taken to absurd lengths. The most startling example is where Negri calmly asserts that the working class movement inspired by autonomism has reached the point where he can say, ‘We are here, we are uncrushable, and we are in the majority.’ [9] His conclusion to the book is that the working class is moving irresistibly to power.

Of course, optimism is a necessary revolutionary attribute, but here it means that reality is obscured by daydreams. When the repression against the autonomist current started, rather than being ‘in the majority’ the autonomists were seen to be extremely isolated. Also such optimism was not only self deluding – it also can lead to some extremely dangerous strategies. One long quote should be sufficient to illustrate this:

Some groups of workers, some sections of the working class, remain tied to the dimension of the wage, to its mystified terms. In other words, they are living off income as revenue. In as much, they are stealing and expropriating proletarian surplus value – they are participating in the social labour racket – on the same terms as their management. These positions – and particularly the trade union practice that fosters them – are to be fought, with violence if necessary. It will not be the first time that a march of the unemployed has entered a large factory so that they can destroy the arrogance of salaried income! [10]

Surely no comment is necessary on this total distortion of a working class struggle and the lunatic tactics advocated. Rather than take a series of similar examples of the conclusions of the autonomist theorists, it is more productive to see where this sort of adventurism comes from.

What lies behind many of the post-1977 autonomists, and Toni Negri especially, is a fundamental break with Marxist methodology – a split which is freely acknowledged. As we have seen, the workerists and, following them, the autonomists both concentrated on the necessity of the working class being separate from capitalist development, refusing the logic of capital. Negri has now taken this to its logical conclusion by seeing workers’ subjectivity as the key determinant of capitalist development. This has its own laws of development, altogether more violent, more full of ruptures, than the traditional Marxist method which stresses the continuity of the traditions and crises as a culmination of a series of crises on the political, economic and cultural front, as well as merely on the level of subjective feelings. Negri himself defines his method as ‘the prevalence of the subjective in the explanation of the present day dialectic of capital. Taking the subjective viewpoint to extremes does not negate its methodological validity. Rather it confirms it and extends it.’ [11]

Once this is accepted then Negri’s tactics have at least some internal logic. If it is workers’ consciousness that determines the development of capital, then capital can be destroyed by workers freeing themselves from its ideological domination. Thus the transition to communism is a process which is happening around us now, as more and more workers are (apparently) rejecting capitalism in their everyday lives through sabotage, absenteeism, etc. If we really are moving to communism now – that is, we are in a revolutionary period – then those workers who have not broken from capital are literally counter-revolutionaries, and they ‘have to be fought, with violence if necessary’.

Serious discussion about uniting the class need not take place since capitalist development has done that, making us all ‘social workers’. Therefore the party is really not that necessary. You can take your choice between two different models which have emerged from the autonomous current. The first concentrates on the revolutionising of everyday life as being the revolution itself: ‘The revolutionary party has its headquarters in every house, in every place of work, study or enjoyment. Where there is a struggle to maintain our own desires, the revolution will never come to a halt.’ [12] This conception of the party comes from the wing of the autonomists with the deepest roots in the youth and other sectors excluded from production, and parts of the working class. While they continue to be active and effective in local situations, they are incapable of mounting a national challenge to the state.

The other view of the party comes from those who concentrate on the revolutionary crisis existing throughout Italian society and the repressive nature of the state. For these, the need now is for the ‘armed party’, for a violent attack on the very structures of capitalist power. The ‘armed party’ is not the same as the Red Brigades. It is concerned with attacking capitalist power at a local level (police, drug pushers, etc.) rather than the remote symbols of state power. What is more, it does have a social base. It remains strong enough to serve as an alibi for increased state repression, but far too weak to pose any serious threat to capitalist power in Italy.

Whichever wing of the autonomists one looks at, both have reached an impasse where their ideology tells them that ‘they are in the majority’, but reality tells them they are increasingly isolated. This gap between ideology and reality is surely the result of the idealist method that Negri (and many other autonomists) propose. Negri is fully ‘aware of all the criticisms that could be levelled at this position [his method] from a traditional Marxist viewpoint’. But, he argues, ‘anyone who comes with accusations, pressing me with criticism and telling me that I am wrong, must, in turn, accept the responsibility of being a participant in the monstrosities we have seen in the development of “socialism” – with its illicit dealings with the most disgusting results of the capitalist mode of production’. [13]

We are therefore talking about a theory and movement which splits radically from not merely the reformist tradition, but also the revolutionary one, which sees the working class’s potential control over the means of production as the key to change. Autonomism is in no sense new. Rather it is a regression to a pre-Marxist form of revolt, one which substitutes idealism for materialism, personal revolt for class action.

There is one final argument that needs to be made in relation to autonomism’s relevance to Britain. Some of the arguments put forward by the autonomists obviously echo those put forward by, for instance, parts of the women’s movement. This is obviously the case over such things as the role of the party or the revolution as a continuing process of personal revolution. Further, the Italian autonomists have attracted one or two British intellectuals. Thus the editors ask, ‘How can the sort of intellectuals involved in the CSE likewise help to develop a real threat to capitalism in our own countries (as they did in Italy)?’ [14]

Here I think three points have to be made. The first is that the autonomists’ ideas involve a break from the revolutionary Marxist tradition and its method. Of course this does not automatically disprove the ideas put forward, but they should not be posed as some kind of development of that tradition. The second point is that if we are to discuss the application of those ideas we need an honest history of the autonomous movement in Italy. That would certainly emphasise the fact that, while many of the autonomists are among the best and most sincere militants in Italy, they have not been able to develop a real threat to capitalist power and, while still strong, appear to have reached a dead end and certainly are isolated in the face of the state’s attacks.

Finally, could we have the sort of ‘autonomous current’ in Britain that the editors quoted above are hoping to develop? I think it unlikely. Certainly one of the preconditions is a total demoralisation within the revolutionary left. That we have not seen in Britain, and if the alternative is the politics of Italian autonomism we must redouble our efforts to make sure that never happens.


1. Red Notes (eds.), Working Class Autonomy and the Crisis (London 1979).

2. This article owes much to work done by Riccardo Albione.

3. Red Notes (eds.), op. cit., p. 19.

4. M. Tronti, Operai e Capitale (Torino 1971), p. 282.

5. From the paper of Potere Operaio, in Red Notes (eds.), op. cit., p. 27.

6. T. Negri, ibid., pp. 63, 69.

7. For this period see Red Notes (eds.), Italy 1977–1978: Living with an Earthquake (London 1978).

8. Red Notes (eds.), Working Class Autonomy, op. cit., p. x. This, believe it or not, comes from the ‘explanatory’ introduction.

9. Ibid., p. 118.

10. Ibid., p. 110.

11. Ibid., p. 99.

12. A/Traverso, March 1976.

13. Red Notes (eds.), Working Class Autonomy, op. cit., p. 98.

14. Ibid., p. iv.

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Last updated on 13.6.2012