Autonomism – “Many Flowers Little Fruit”

Autonomism – “Many Flowers Little Fruit”

A response to the comments and criticisms of our article “Autonomism – Cutting the Ground from under Marxism”.


Autonomism – “Many Flowers Little Fruit”1 – A Response to our Critics

The article from Revolutionary Perspectives 10 “Autonomism – Cutting the Ground from under Marxism” has attracted quite a lot of comment and criticism. The text was not an historical treatment of the development of Autonomism, which we recognised was a heterogeneous movement extending over a period of almost two decades. It was intended to show, by looking at four elements of Autonomist theory, how theoretical errors had led the movement into a cul-de-sac. However, we recognise that some of the general comments made in the introduction are too categorical and were historically inaccurate. We are grateful for corrections of fact and for further information which has been provided, in particular by the comrades of Mouvement Communiste.

However, the arguments on three of the four main issues of the text, namely the existence of working class autonomy, the rejection of the Marxist labour theory of value, and Marxist crisis theory have not been seriously challenged. The more significant criticism has been over the need for political organisation or a political party and its formation which was the main thrust of the text. This criticism can be divided into two main categories. The first admits the need for a party for the overthrow of capitalism but argues that the party will arise from the workplace struggles on their own while the second argues that the party is no longer needed at all and that it is a relic of the past. We have dealt with the second view, with which we completely disagree, in other texts and do not intend to consider here.2

In addition the text has been criticised for its failure to highlight the organisation and methods of struggle which the Autonomists used in their struggles with capital. These are strategies of struggle which the ICT largely supports and which we consider are key to successful class struggle today. Although this was not the focus of the previous text we recognise that this is the most important legacy of the Autonomists period which should be more widely known. We will review this below together with the question of the formation of the party.

We wish first, however, to reiterate our criticism of the general political thrust of the Autonomist movement which was not stated strongly enough in the previous text.

Autonomism’s failure to break with the left of capital

Our critics have pointed out that various sections of the movement did form political organisations contrary to the assertion in the text that the movement did not form a political organisation. The text’s statement was incorrect and should have been qualified to say that no single organisation was formed and those which were formed did not survive the 1970s.3 However, for us the key point, which was made in the text, was that the organisations which were formed did not break from the politics of the capitalist left and consequently could not give the movement a coherent anti-capitalist direction.

Our critics point to the political organisations Potere Operaio (PO), Lotta Continua (LC) and Avanguardia Operaia (AO) as examples of political organisations which were formed by the movement. While this is true, it is also true that all these formations collapsed in the 1970s. It is also true that they gave their support to the left wing of the capitalist class. We note for example that:

Potere Operaio, argued the Italian Communist Party (PCI) was not integrated into capitalism because the rank and file blocked such an integration. It was, PO instructed its members, mandatory for workers to join the (PCI) and struggle against the reformists in the party.4

PO also, as we mentioned in the previous text, urged workers to support national liberation struggles which amounts to submitting the interests of the working class to the interests of the national bourgeoisie.

LC called for voting for the PCI in regional elections in 1975 and together with AO joined an electoral coalition, Democrazia Proletaria5, in 1976. Later both organisations called for voting for the PCI in national elections. The call for voting for the PCI in national elections was launched after the so-called “historic compromise” or democratic alliance of the PCI with the Christian Democrats in 1976.

For us there can be no justification whatsoever of any support, however critical or qualified, for the PCI. This party, like the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), showed itself to be an arm of the bourgeois class from the 1930s. This has been illustrated time and again, not least in the period spanned by the Autonomist movement. The Autonomists were opposed consistently by the PCI often with open violence. Autonomist militants were expelled from the PCI dominated union CGIL6 and from the party itself. Some were beaten up. An example of this was when PCI thugs beat up a workers’ committee at the Innocenti factory near Milan for organising a strike against redundancies in October 1976.7 The PCI compiled lists of Autonomist “trouble makers” and handed them to the bosses leading to militants being made redundant. Later, during the period when the Red Brigades’ assassination of Aldo Moro provided the pretext for the full force of the state to be brought down on the Autonomist movement, the PCI handed their lists to the prosecuting judge, Calogero. Judge Calogero, himself a PCI member, issued arrest warrants for many Autonomist militants in April 1979. This resulted in many comrades spending years in prison on completely false charges.8

But it did not need these attacks on the working class to prove that the PCI was an arm of the capitalist class. The PCI supported the side of “democratic” imperialism in World War Two. The anti-working class consequences of this became clear when the party started to operate openly in Italy towards the end of the war. When Togliatti, leader of the PCI, returned to Italy in 1944 acting as Stalin’s faithful henchman, he announced revolution was not on the agenda. Instead:

What we need is economic growth within the framework of private ownership and democracy.9

In the so-called Salerno Turn he announced that the PCI would work with anti-fascist capitalist parties and monarchists to implement this, and did so by participating in all the Italian governments from 1944 to 1947. Those who supported the path of revolutionary communism found themselves trapped between the fascist police on the one hand and the bullets of the PCI on the other. The CWO’s sister party in the ICT, the Partito Comunista Internazionalista (PCInt), known by its paper Battaglia Comunista, which was formed in 1943, found itself in this position.

The PCInt understood that the Second World War was an imperialist war, like the First, and like it should be opposed by revolutionary defeatism. They understood that anti-fascism was simply ideological camouflage for the imperialist interests of democratic capitalism. In addition the PCInt criticised:

Interclass popular alliances and united fronts which were precisely what the PCI was engaged in,
Rejected any support for the forces of war and imperialism, both of Moscow and Washington. The PCI was, of course, the tool of Russian imperialism,
Rejected the lie of national roads to socialism.10 The PCI now announced there was a parliamentary route to socialism.

For this the PCI slandered the PCInt comrades branding them as agents of the Gestapo and launched a manhunt against them. In 1945 two PCint comrades were murdered by PCI assassins and other comrades “disappeared” all on the orders of PCI leaders.11 Meanwhile fascists were freed from prison and granted amnesty on the orders of the new Minister of Justice, who just happened to be the leader of the PCI, Togliatti.

We mention this sorry history today only to restate that any political way forward for the working class must entail a total break with the political forces of capitalism which is what the PCI and the PSI and their various offshoots represent. Sadly the political forces emerging from the Autonomist movement did not make this break and led the movement into a dead end. The valuable legacy of the movement for today is in the forms of struggle it initiated.

Forms of organisation for class struggle

Autonomist struggles were conducted by works committees that operated outside the official trade unions and independent of the CPI and PSI. Where there were many factories or branches of an industry in an area works committees were federated and in some regions, e.g. Porto Marghera12, an Autonomous assembly was formed. The purpose of this assembly was to coordinate workers struggles both inside and outside the factories. The assemblies became points of reference for other social struggles. In many areas assemblies were supported by students. In Turin, for example, there was a worker/student assembly grouping 1500 workers. Such organisation generated a tremendous social energy and solidarity with the potential to grow into a massive social movement.

Within the factories the works committees always tried to put forward unifying demands such as:
equal increases for all rather than % increases
guaranteed minimum wage
reduced working hours for all
equality of treatment for permanent and temporary workers.

The social struggles demanded such things as:
reduction in transport costs,
reduction in electricity costs,
reduction in food prices,
reduction in housing rents and occupation of empty housing.

In certain areas workers paid only what they considered a fair price for these things and in some areas these self-reductions were made official. In the province of Venice in 1974, for example, after 4 months of self-reduction of electricity bills, an official agreement to reduce the price of electricity was reached.

The “Hot Autumn” of 1969 and the years which followed in the early 70s saw a section of the Italian working class, especially those in the large factories, escape the control of the trade unions and the PCI and PSI. They carried out class resistance to capitalism on a greater scale than anything Europe has experienced in the period since the Second World War. However, workers in the smaller factories and industries remained under the control of CGIL and PCI and in the country as a whole these organisations retained control of a major section of the working class.13

Yet struggles of the larger factories in the north of Italy were on a massive and widespread scale and represented a challenge to capitalism itself and the Italian state. Many who participated in these events were not sure where they were leading and hoped the movement itself would provide an answer. Others saw in what was being achieved a preparation for communism with workers gradually taking over elements of life within capitalism in the way Gramsci theorised during the occupation of the factories in 1920. However, just as in 192014 any permanent gains for the working class could only be achieved by taking state power. While these gains remained reforms within capitalism it was just a matter of time before the capitalist class started to take them back

Needless to say, the capitalist class was busy preparing and implementing counter measures. The first was the restructuring of production. The number of workers needed in industry was reduced by replacing workers with robots. The time to produce a car at Fiat, for example, halved between 1973 and 1979. Large concentrations of workers were broken up and production started to be shifted to peripheral countries. The giant chemical factories, which were at the heart of the struggles at Porto Marghera, are today mostly empty shells. The final blow was delivered by the state repression. As mentioned above the actions of the Red Brigades gave the state the pretext it needed, and large numbers of Autonomist militants were charged with supporting terrorism, arrested and imprisoned. This was in effect the crushing of the movement.

Despite the successful organisational forms adopted, almost all the material gains or the earlier period were taken back by the capitalist class in the 1980s. Autonomist militants meanwhile rotted in gaol and the trade unions reasserted their hold in the factories. A response to the crushing of the movement was the creation of new unions or base unions, COBAS.15 This was a step backwards organisationally since as the new unions became recognised by the bosses they officially functioned as negotiators of the price of labour power. This soon placed them in the same situation as the official existing unions.16

Until the revolution succeeds the only real gains the working class can make from its struggles against capitalism are in its ability to organise itself and its consciousness of the necessity and the means to overthrow capitalism. The gains in consciousness need to be made through reflection and analysis of the problems and development of the capitalist system, workers’ struggles against it, the advances and mistakes and the way forward on a global scale. This process is one which entails a dialectical interaction of theory and practice but generally needs to be carried out outside the physical boundaries of the struggle by those prepared to devote their abilities to it. It needs to be developed within a political party which groups those who understand the need to establish communism and the need to develop the theory and practice to achieve this.

Can the political party be formed from the struggle organisations?

Many who admire the Autonomist struggles admit that there is a need for a party of the working class. It is obvious that struggles need to be coordinated and this does not simply mean in a single country but internationally. It is clear that an international organisation – a party of the working class is the vehicle for this. Many today see this party as simply a tool of centralisation of struggles, a part of the unitary organisation of the working class. The question for them is how such a party can be formed. Some of those who have criticised our position on the need for a party argue that the party will emerge from the struggles in the workplaces directly.17 This view is summed up in the statement by Luciano Parlanti a Fiat worker and leading member of Lotta Continua:

Organisation never creates a movement; it’s a movement that creates organisation.

While it is true that LC emerged from the struggles of 1968-69 it was not simply a unitary organisation but a political one. A more general statement of this thesis is that the economic unitary organisation will create the political organisation. But the political nature of the organisation the struggle creates is key. As we have attempted to show above, the organisations, such as LC, which emerged from the struggles of this period, emerged with social democratic consciousness, which led back to bourgeois electoral politics and the cul-de-sac of reformism.

To expect a coherent revolutionary party to emerge from economic struggles alone is wishful thinking. The party needs to exist before mass struggles break out and it needs have a clear political understanding if it is to give any coherent direction to those struggles; and coherent political direction is required if the struggles are not to exhaust themselves in reforms within capitalism. This is, of course, crucial in times of war or revolutionary unrest. An historical illustration of this is the situation in Germany at the time of the Spartacist revolt in January 1919. Here the KPD (German Communist Party) was formed only weeks before the uprising. It was consequently quite unable to get its platform and politics known or understood amongst the mass of the working class who remained under the influence of Social Democracy. Social Democracy, of course, wanted a democratic republic within the capitalist system and were quite happy to butcher the Spartacists to achieve this. As Onorato Damen, a founder of the PCInt, later argued that “the party could not be the product of the last minute” and that:

Without the revolutionary party every revolt will exhaust itself within the system.18

Attempts have been made historically to overcome the separation of working class unitary and political organisations and so combine the organisation of the economic and political struggle. This has ended in failure. In our previous document we mentioned the German AAUD-E 19 who attempted to fuse the unitary and political organisations. This led to the collapse of the AAUD-E and the theorisation that the political organisation was not needed at all, and that all that was needed for the overthrow of capitalism were the workers councils. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) who are at present increasing their presence in the US and the UK as a type of base union (COBAS) also attempt to do this. They give the economic struggle precedence over the political. The weakness of this strategy is shown in periods of crisis when bold political leadership is required. This was tragically illustrated when the US entered the First World War in April 1917. In 1916 the IWW committed itself to:

anti-militarist propaganda in time of peace, thus promoting class solidarity amongst workers of the entire world, and, in time of war, the general strike in all industries.20

However, when the US entered the war, the IWW regarded the war as simply an interruption to building the organisation. It gave no political direction to its sections and left it up to each section to decide its attitude to the war. One of the most militant sections at the Philadelphia docks, which had carried out a massive and successful strike in 191321 saw hundreds of its members sign up for the military, and agreed a no-strike pact at the port for the duration of the war.22 This is another illustration of the need for a clear political organisation which is able to give a political lead in times of crisis. It also shows the failure of attempts to give the economic struggle precedence over the political struggle.

As we state in “The Future International” in this edition the communist revolution differs from the bourgeois because the working class unlike the bourgeoisie has no property to defend. Nor can it build up islands of communism within capitalist society as Gramsci theorised. Instead,

Our strength comes from our capacity for common collective action. And the proletarian revolution cannot come about through a mere chasing of immediate interests. The proletarian revolution has to be a conscious revolution. Under capitalist conditions though, some workers will come to recognise the need to overthrow the system before others. It is only natural that this minority form a political organisation to express their conscious aim of creating a new society.23

In our fight for communism we have constantly raised the issue of the International, or International Party. Unless the world working class forges this political tool as part of the rise of its revolutionary consciousness we will be facing yet more defeats in the future.

Can the party be formed at the present time?

According to the World Bank there are now 3.45bn workers in the world who, together with their children, represent the majority of the world’s 7.6bn population. This means that the situation we face is entirely different from that faced in 1917 when the majority of the world’s population was peasantry. The revolutionary wave which followed World War One was broken and dissipated on the rocks of the peasantry. The changes in global class composition mean that today the opposition of the peasantry to communism is no longer a threat. The situation is consequently more favourable to the successful overthrow of global capitalism. In the present period we are seeing the formation of a world working class even though it does not understand itself as the force to overthrow capitalism. Capital, by globalising itself more completely than ever before is globalising its contradictions and its internal problems. It is globalising its exploited and its exploiters and producing impoverishment of its global working class. All these processes are, however, far from compete and the full contradictions of the system on a global scale have not yet been fully developed. Nevertheless the world’s workers are struggling in an elemental and increasingly bitter way against capital despite the divisions of nationality, of race or religion which the capitalist class does not hesitate to engender and support. These struggles give us hope for the future. However their fragmented nature has led some to argue that the time for the formation of a global party is not yet. New forms of labour organisation and political struggle appropriate to the scale of globalisation we have now achieved, need to develop before the party can be built.

Though it may be true that an international party cannot be built in the present period, a nucleus of such a party can be built today. The economic crisis of 2007/2008 was an indication of the seriousness of the economic problems capitalism is facing and the real possibility of either a social collapse or a future war. A social breakdown, however, will not on its own lead to communism, despite the dreams of the communisation tendency. Communism can only come about if there is a global organisation fighting for it and fighting for a programme to achieve it. The crisis of 2007/8 has generally shaken confidence in the system and building the skeleton of such an organisation is both possible and urgent today.

15 January 2018

  • 1. Assessment by M. Tronti 1978. Quoted by Steve Wright “Storming Heaven” p. 225
  • 2. See Bordiga- Beyond the Myth,
  • 3. Potere Operaia collapsed in 1973, Lotta Continua in 1976 and Avanguardia Operaia in 1978.
  • 4. See Steve Wright “Storming Heaven” p. 111
  • 5. This coalition included a spin off from the Italian Socialist Party (PSIUP) and a Maoist group.
  • 6. Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro. The largest Italian trade union.
  • 7. See pamphlet by Mouvement Communiste “An example of workers autonomy in Italy.”
  • 8. G. Sbrogio, a militant from Porto Marghera autonomous assembly spent 4 years and 8 months in gaol accused of being the brains behind the Red Brigades. This is just one example of many workers who were falsely imprisoned by the state. Their real “crime” was fighting for working class interests and so threatening capitalist exploitation.
  • 9. Quoted in Steve Wright “Storming Heaven” p. 7
  • 10. See
  • 11. Mario Acquaviva and Fausto Atti, fell to the assassins’ pistols. See
  • 12. Porto Marghera is the area of Venice north of the famous island. See pamphlet by Mouvement Communiste “An example of workers autonomy in Italy.”
  • 13. This is the assessment of PCInt.
  • 14. This is articulated by Emanuela Furlanetto who participated in the self-imposed food price reductions. See the video “The Suspended Years” available from Mouvement Communiste. For more on Gramsci see We will be publishing a translation of Onorato Damen’s Gramsci: Between Marxism and Idealism later this year.
  • 15. COBAS acronym for Comitati di Base, or rank and file unions.
  • 16. See recent events around the Sicobas in Italy.
  • 17. The Angry Workers of the World (AWW) and Mouvement Communiste support this position.
  • 18. See
  • 19. AAUD-E was the General Workers Union – unitary organisation.
  • 20. Resolution at 10th annual convention the IWW 1916. Quoted in ICC International Review 125
  • 21. See Mouvement Communiste Letter Number 38
  • 22. This did not, of course, prevent the bourgeoisie from attacking the organisation, smashing its offices and imprisoning its leaders for terms of sometimes 10 to 20 years. IWW members were branded as first as spies of the Kaiser and later after October 1917 spies for the Bolsheviks!
  • 23.