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(en) Canada, A&S*, Upping the Anti #1 - The Politics of Revolution: Learning from Autonomist Marxism By Gary Kinsman

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Wed, 20 Apr 2005 09:07:05 +0200 (CEST)

A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E
News about and of interest to anarchists
http://ainfos.ca/ http://ainfos.ca/index24.html

Based on a presentation given at a public forum organized by
Sudbury Autonomy & Solidarity in Feb. 2004.
Autonomist Marxism can be seen as a form of Marxism that focuses
on developing working class autonomy and power in a capitalist
society that is constituted by and through class struggle. One of the
strengths of autonomist Marxism is its critique of political economy
interpretations of Marxism that end up reifying the social worlds
around us, converting what people socially produce into social
relationships between things. Most “orthodox” Marxist
political economy gives all power to capital and considers workers as
victims without power or agency. In my work and writing I have tried
to recognize the resistance and agency of the oppressed and how this
agency and action obstructs ruling relations, often forcing the
elaboration of new strategies of ruling. For me, autonomist Marxism
has provided a much firmer basis for this very different reading of

In the 1970s, I had a number of close encounters with autonomist
Marxism and currents related to it. When I was a young Trotskyist in
the Revolutionary Marxist Group in the 1970s I remember debates
with members and supporters of the New Tendency (a current in
Toronto and Windsor influenced by the Italian New Left and Lotta
Continua). I argued, as I had been told, that they were
“spontaneists” who didn’t grasp the need for a party
building approach. Some feminists in the New Tendency became
engaged with a wages against housework campaign built from the
autonomist Marxist notion of capitalism as a social factory that
extended beyond the factory walls. Autonomist Marxist feminists like
Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Selma James, and Silvia Federici argued that
women doing domestic labour were not only labouring for individual
men but also for capital and were participating in producing labour
power as a commodity used by capitalists. Looking back on it now, I
was quite wrong in my arguments that the problem was
“spontaneism” and that domestic labour did not produce
value. After leaving the Trotskyist / Leninist left in 1980 because of
its refusal to be transformed by feminism and movements for
lesbian/gay liberation, I was influenced by Sheila Rowbotham’s
book Beyond the Fragments, particularly her critique of Leninism,
and by organizations in England such as Big Flame and the Beyond
the Fragments network. Big Flame was also influenced by Lotta
Continua and other currents on the Italian left and attempted to
prioritize building autonomous class and social struggles ahead of
building itself as a revolutionary organization.


In talking about autonomist Marxism it is important not to reduce it
to its most famous exponent in the English speaking world, Antonio
Negri, co-author of Empire and Multitude. Despite his important
contributions to autonomist Marxism in both the theoretical and
activist spheres, it is important to view autonomist Marxism as a
political space which contains a number of different trends. What
brings these currents together is a commitment to valorizing the
working class struggle against capital, an emphasis on the
self-organization of the working class, and an opposition to statist
conceptions of socialism and communism. Autonomy in autonomist
Marxism can be seen as autonomy from both capital and the official
leaderships of the trade unions and political parties and the capacity
and necessity of groups of workers who experience different
oppressions to act autonomously from others (blacks from whites,
women from men, queers from straights).

It is important to locate autonomist Marxism in its social and
historical contexts as it actually has roots that predate the Italian New
Left of the late 1950s and 1960s. One place to start is with the work
of C.L.R. James and his associates who focused on the need for
working class autonomy and power - including the autonomy of
workers from unions and political parties. They based a lot of their
theoretical and practical work on learning from workers and the
autonomous struggle of black people in the US and around the world.
C.L.R. James and the Facing Reality group, who developed a
substantial critique of the Leninist vanguard party, also had
connections with the ex-Trotskyist Socialisme ou Barbarie group in
France, and through this connection, activists in Italy came to be
aware of this strand of critical Marxism.


This writing and analysis came together in Italy with dissidents in the
Communist and Socialist Parties who were focusing on working class
struggle and experience and becoming increasingly dissatisfied with
the perspectives of their parties, including such writers as Mario
Tronti, Raniero Panzieri, Sergio Bologna, and Antonio Negri. This
tendency initially described itself as operaismo or
‘workerism’, given its focus on working class experience at
the point of production. They focused on working class struggle and
autonomy. Based on their extensive contacts with workers, they
produced detailed analyses of working class experience and the social
organization and re-organization of production. Their theory and
practice soon moved outside the factory, but the inter-relation
between the development of autonomist Marxism, working class
struggles and other movements in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s is
important to understand. Autonomist Marxists argued that the
working class is not reducible to labour power (a commodity);
instead, it is the active force producing capitalism and its internal
transformations. This brought about a reversal of “orthodox
Marxism” which instead of giving all power to capital considered
working class struggle rather than capital as the dynamic, initiating
social force of production.

For instance, technological transformations within capitalism have
often developed in relation to working class struggles and as attempts
to weaken working class struggles and organizing. Many of the
initiators of autonomous Marxism went back to Marx’s writings
on the significance of working class struggles in the social
organization of capital. They reminded us that Marx argued that it is
workers who are the active agents in producing the new wealth in
capitalist societies through the exploitation of surplus value from
their labour in the process of production. The initial capitalist strategy
of raising the rate of the exploitation of workers through lengthening
the working day (increasing the absolute rate of exploitation), was
defeated in large part by workers resisting and refusing this strategy.
It was the active blocking of this strategy through workers’
struggles to limit the length of the working day that led to the strategy
of increasing exploitation by technological applications, speeding up
production and inventing new forms of
“scientific-management.” Many autonomist Marxist theorists
and activists rediscovered/remembered that capital is a social relation
in which the working class is an active component. Working class
struggle is therefore internal to capital (both within and against
capital) and carries the possibility of breaking with it.


Autonomist Marxism has developed a number of important tools for
analyzing and thinking through working class struggles. As long as
these terms are not understood as monolithic in character and are
used in a concrete social and historical sense and are integrated with
analyses of gender, racialization, sexuality, ability and other lines of
social difference they can be very helpful in our struggles and
attempts to theorize working class struggles.

Autonomist Marxist theorists and activists use the expression
“working class composition” to refer to the specific forms of
social organization of the working class in relation to capital in
particular situations. For instance: how integrated is the working
class into capitalist relations, how internally divided is the working
class, how autonomous is working class activity from capital or how
are social relations being subverted in working class struggles of a
particular context or period? Unlike in some traditional Marxist
contexts, the “working class” is not thought of as an object or
a classification, rather it is always in process of becoming and exists
in a context of struggle. It is continually changing and in the process
of remaking itself and being remade. History and shifting forms of
social organization therefore become crucial to grasping working
class experience and struggle. Capitalists actively struggle to
“decompose” the capacities and strengths of working class
composition by exacerbating and re-organizing internal divisions in
the working class, ripping apart sources of working class and
oppressed people’s power, fragmenting groups and struggles and
extending social surveillance. These attempts to destroy working
class struggles produce new conditions for the possible
re-composition of working class struggle and power.

The continuing process of class composition, decomposition, and
re-composition constitutes a “cycle of struggle” within
autonomist Marxism. Understanding these cycles of struggle and our
positions within them is crucial for evaluating our own sources of
power and weakness and for determining how to move forward. For
autonomist Marxism the notion of circulation of struggles is used to
get at the ways through which different struggles and movements
impact on and transform each other, sometimes circulating the most
‘advanced’ forms of struggle across geographical locations
and creating important ruptures with capitalist relations. Autonomist
Marxist theorists have differentiated between different forms of the
social organization of working class struggle. This includes the
organization of skilled craft workers in the early parts of the 20th
century, which was in turn decomposed by the organization of
“scientific management” and mass production. This process
then created the basis for the re-composition of the mass and
industrial workers through large scale factory production and
‘scientific management’ of workers in the mid 20th century,
a process also linked to the development of the
“welfare-state” and Keynesian social and economic policies.

In the 1960s and 1970s autonomist Marxists saw the emergence of
the less clearly defined and more diffuse ‘socialized worker’
of the ‘social factory,’ as capitalist production moved beyond
factory walls and came to organize and shape community and
everyday life through pervasive consumer/state relations. Areas of
household and community life also became terrains of class and
social struggle against capital involving domestic labour, housing,
health, school-work, and sexuality. These struggles included those
not only of ‘productive’ labour but also those of
‘reproductive’ labour as capitalist relations were extended to
the social organization of desire and consumption. Autonomous
struggles of women, lesbians and gay men, people of colour,
immigrants, and other oppressed groups who struggle against not
only capital but against groups of workers who participate in their
oppression and marginalization thus became increasingly visible and
disruptive to capitalist social relations. Faced with the struggles
against the imposition of work by ‘socialized workers’ capital
abandoned the program of the Keynesian ‘welfare-state’ and
sought to decompose working class struggles via neo-liberalism and
the establishment of what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have
termed “Empire.”

Autonomist Marxism has shown how differing forms of organization
and consciousness emerge in relation to different forms of working
class composition and different cycles and circulation of struggles.
These forms of organization are historically and socially specific. For
instance some autonomist Marxist theorists and historians have
pointed out how skilled craft workers often fought to establish more
control over their work and how in various ways this led to an
emphasis on workers control of production. This also inspired and
created the basis for both the various mobilizations associated with
Leninism and the vanguard party but also for Council Communism
(where liberation was to be achieved through the establishment of
workers councils) which developed a more left challenge to capitalist
relations and stressed working class autonomy in the historical
context of the early 20th century. While Leninism as an
organizational and political practice may have made some sense in
these conditions, it no longer does. The mass worker was the basis
for the International Workers of the World (IWW) in the USA, for the
mass industrial unions in the Congress of Industrial Organizations
(CIO) later on, and for the struggles in Italy in the late 1960s. In
response to these mass concentrations of workers and outbreaks of
class struggle capitalists have struggled to decompose and fragment
these struggles in part by dismantling the earlier Fordist organization
of mass production.

In the period of the ‘socialized’ worker, resistance grows
against the imposition of work, struggles expand beyond the narrow
point of production into the realm of consumption, while different
sections of the working class seek control over home and community
life by struggling for ‘self-valorization’.
“Self-valorization” is a term used within autonomist Marxism
to get at how workers struggles in a broad sense are not only against
capitalist relations but are also attempts to create alternative ways of
life that overcome capitalist and oppressive relations. Workers
struggle not only for autonomy from capital but also for
self-valorization in a range of different ways by breaking free from
capitalist relations and seeking to build a different way of living.
There is a certain commonality here with the notion of prefigurative
struggles developed by Sheila Rowbotham in Beyond the Fragments
where she argued for the need for activists to reimagine a possible
future in our struggles and organizing in the present. This
development of alternatives to capitalist and oppressive relations, and
the emergence of glimpses and moments of experience of a possible
future, become crucial in developing our struggles today.


In 1976-77 autonomist Marxism became the major force within
radical Italian left struggles after the exhaustion of the strategies of
the other currents on the revolutionary left. The autonomia
movement of 1977 was incredibly intense but was unfortunately
trapped between the repressive forces of the state on one hand and
the political limitations of the urban guerilla approach of the Red
Brigades on the other. Thousands of activists were arrested and
imprisoned. Since then there has been a major influence of
autonomia in organizing and struggles in Italy including the Tute
Blanche and the Disobbedienti in the global justice and social centre

Around the world there is an important influence of autonomia and
autonomist Marxism in global justice struggles and also among many
who are involved in the Open Borders and No One Is Illegal
struggles. In Argentina recent struggles have been informed by
autonomia and autonomist Marxism. The Zapatista revolt has been a
major reference point for many activists around the world in
developing new ways to struggle against capital that do not sacrifice
the autonomy of different oppressed groups. Many of the analytic
tools of autonomist Marxism can be very useful in our current
struggles and debates. The notion of cycles of struggle can be very
useful and the concept of a circulation of struggles that spreads
struggles between groups of people who are moving against
oppression and exploitation remains key. The struggles of the
Zapatistas circulated through the use of the internet (a form of
technology developed by capital but able in some ways to be turned
against it) and through other social and political networks prevented
this revolt from being repressed by the Mexican military and state
forces. However, it also created a space for new international forms of
organizing against capitalism and oppression. This form of struggle in
turn influenced the emergence of a global justice movement in the
late 1990s. It has led to the international circulation of experiences
through struggles and organizing that pushed forward not only the
techniques and levels of struggle but also our abilities to understand
and challenge the weak links in global capitalist organization. This
also led to the rapid generalization of the experiences of affinity
groups, spokes-councils, and direct action politics in many places
around the globe including Seattle, Prague, Québec City, Genoa,
and Cancun.

During the Mine Mill/Canadian Auto Worker Local 598 strike of
2000-2001 against Falconbridge/Noranda in Sudbury, in which there
was considerable rank and file self-activity, a certain heightening of
the levels of struggle took place by union militants connecting with
union activists in CAW Flying Squads in southern Ontario and
activists in CUPE 3903 who had just won a very successful strike
against the York university administration (and who brought the
slogan “Strike to Win!” to Sudbury), and in a more limited
way with the militant anti-poverty activism of the Ontario Coalition
Against Poverty.

Facilitating this circulation of struggles was important to furthering
anti-capitalist politics. We can see here how the circulation of
struggles can be incredibly useful and is built upon our own praxis.
Movements and struggles need to be self-organized but there is also a
need for solidarity between different struggles and to learn from each
other. All struggles and forms of exploitation/oppression have a
mutually constructed or mediated character, being not only
autonomous but also organized in and through each other. Within
autonomist Marxism, unlike in other Marxist approaches, there is no
problem with autonomy and diversity. The goal is to try to develop a
politics of difference that transcends antagonisms between different
sections of the working class and the oppressed.

While the moment of autonomy is well established in Autonomist
Marxism we also need to move beyond autonomy. We need struggles
that overcome social contradictions using a “politics of
responsibility” approach with those of us in oppressing positions
recognizing our own implication within and responsibility to actively
challenge relations of oppression. This approach so far remains
relatively underdeveloped within autonomist Marxism. At the same
time we need to see the multiplication of struggles, the generalization
of struggles, and learning from each other in struggle as crucial.
Through this process, oppositional and transformative struggles can
become unmanageable within the framework of capitalist relations
and we can burst beyond these boundaries.



This also means that, like the Zapatistas, we need to refuse the
history and traditions of left organizing that seek to “seize state
power” and which claim the “leadership” of the working
class. These forms of organizing end up replicating all the old shit -
relations of hierarchy, command, top-down relations, forms of
oppression, and of stifling grass roots and direct action initiatives and
creativity. Instead we need to find ways to organize that facilitate and
catalyze working class and oppressed people’s self-activity and
their own power (“power to” as opposed to “power
over,” to use John Holloway’s expression) and to facilitate
the circulations of struggles to undercut and deconstruct the
‘power over’ of capital, bureaucratic and state relations, and
various forms of oppression. These developments create new spaces
for making actual the politics of revolution - but revolution no longer
understood as the moment of insurrection, or of “seizing
power” but as a long, and ongoing process of contestation and
transformation in many different social sites and settings. It is not just
capital and the state in a narrow sense that are the problem, but all
forms of oppression and exploitation. An important part of the
struggle involves a struggle against ourselves and for the
transformation of ourselves since we are also implicated in capitalist
relations and quite often relations of oppression (or “power

Crucial to this is the building of new forms of organizing where we
can begin to experience and live a sense of what a world defined by
direct democracy, without the domination of capital and without
forms of oppression will be like, which will give us more energy to
carry on the struggle. Of course many questions remain including
how to build anti-oppression politics more fully into autonomist
Marxism; what the composition of struggles are in Canada and the
USA where the ‘war on terror’ has been used relatively
successfully to divide and weaken activist movements and struggles;
and what struggles are the most important for us to circulate to
produce more effective and escalated levels of social struggle. These
are some of the questions we need to discuss. But the red threads of
autonomous Marxism can allow us to rethink and recreate a politics
of revolution for our time.

Some suggested readings:

Kaili Beck, Chris Bowes, Gary Kinsman, Mercedes Steedman, Peter
Suschnigg, eds., Mine Mill Fights Back, Mine Mill/CAW Local 598
Strike 2000-2001, Sudbury: Mine Mill/CAW Local 598, 2005.

Paul Thompson and Guy Lewis, The Revolution Unfinished? A
Critique of Trotskyism, Big Flame, Liverpool, England, 1977. Also at

Harry Cleaver, Reading Capital Politically, AK Press/Antithesis,
2000. A range of Cleaver’s important writings can be found at

Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, The Power of Women and
the Subversion of the Community, Bristol: Falling Wall Press, 1972.

Nick Dyer-Witheford, Cyber-Marx, Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in
High-Technology Capitalism, Urbana and Chicago, University of
Illinois Press, 1999.

Silvia Federici, Wages Against Housework, London: Power of
Women Collective and Falling Wall Press, 1975.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Cambridge Mass,
Harvard University Press, 2000.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude, War and Democracy in
the Age of Empire, New York: Penguin, 2004.
* A&S - Autonomy & Solidarity is an anticapitalist antiauthoritarian
revolutionary network in Canada.]

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