‘Must try harder!’: Towards a critique of Autonomist Marxism

Our review article ‘From Operaismo to Autonomist Marxism’ (Aufheben 11) brought a robust response1 from Harry Cleaver the author of one of the two books we were responding to. As we see critique and counter critique as a way of developing theory, this reply, in which Cleaver makes some valid points, should have been an opportunity to clarify our criticisms, to acknowledge weaknesses and inadequacies in what we wrote and to restate some of the issues at stake. Unfortunately Cleaver chose the electronic equivalent of a red pen to make his response, reproducing our text interspersed with copious comments. This schoolmasterly form of response meant we could not publish his reply without republishing our article and would also make a direct response to it - putting comments on his comments - rather unwieldy.

While a reply in this form might satisfy a certain competitive spirit, it would be tedious for both us and many readers. Also the way that we initiated this as a critique of Cleaver has personalised the whole issue. Of course Harry Cleaver is one of the most prominent anglophone partisans of Autonomist Marxism and has waged the good fight for its recognition in the academic and activist marketplace. We reacted to his role as an ideologue - but this is a distraction from the central issue. Operaismo, Autonomia and Autonomist Marxism represent some of the most dynamic and innovative attempts at theorising the class struggle to have emerged in the last half century. This is what matters and what should be subject to critique.

As one writer on Autonomist Marxism puts it: ‘Autonomy as both individual and collective praxis has remained the prevailing characteristic of the new social movements of the radical Left of the 1980s and 1990s, from the ‘ecowarriors’ of Europe to the Zapatista indigenous peoples of Chiapas in Mexico. Autonomist Marxism may be one of the few leftist ideologies not only to have survived the fall of the Berlin Wall, but to have been strengthened and vindicated by the collapse of ‘real socialism’ and the downfall of orthodox Marxism. 2

Leaving to one side the author’s positive use of the terms ‘leftist’ and ‘ideology’, we can see this view to be borne out in the way Autonomist Marxism has been able to connect to the ‘anti-globalization’ movement. There has been the extraordinary success of Hardt and Negri’s account of the new developments in capitalism - Empire3 - whose sequal Multitude4 is now coming out.

Negri and other Autonomist intellectuals have been involved in the various Social Forums. But perhaps most importantly is the way that various Autonomist Marxist themes and ideas make sense to, and are taken up by, many involved in the mobilisations. Autonomist Marxist ideas can both appeal to the more liberal side of the movement and to those seeking radical or revolutionary alternatives. In this and other countries the traditional left has had to respond to this influence, producing various more or less false pictures of ‘Autonomism’

The renewal of interest in Autonomist Marxism will be a good thing if it is part of a wider search for clarification and understanding. For us the most interesting writings are from the ’60s and ’70s when operaismo and Autonomia expressed developments in perhaps the most advanced area of class struggle at this time. It is to be hoped that attention will turn away from Negri’s latest outpourings to a reassessment of the revolutionary experience of that time. So it will be good if and when more material becomes available and more people read it and absorb it.

However we don’t think that Autonomist Marxism should be held up as an answer, and we don’t identify with Autonomist Marxism at the expense of other currents that don’t meet its criteria. It was this quality of Cleaver’s book - the way it upheld Autonomist Marxism as the culmination of radical theory and his own writings on value as the epitome of a revolutionary reading of Capital - that we responded to. By contrast, we welcomed Steve Wright’s book5 for being prepared to face up to the limits of Autonomist Marxism in theory and practice.

While we do find texts such as Bologna’s ‘Tribe of Moles’6 or Negri’s Marx Beyond Marx7 more useful than later texts, it is not enough to say that there was a ‘good’ Negri or a ‘good’ Autonomist movement that has been replaced with a more suspect one. What needs to be traced out is the weakness and limits in the original theorisations that the later developments then took in a particular direction. So, as we have said, the obsession with the guaranteed income or citizen’s wage that many Autonomist Marxists now express should be linked with their advocacy of a political wage in the 1970s. Despite their adoption of the slogan of ‘the refusal of work’, Autonomist Marxism can be seen to still exist within a framework of the affirmation of labour. The demand for a political wage was that we should all be recognised as productive. The embrace at this time by Autonomists in the ’70s of the most extreme violent tactics is not proof of their radicality. At the practical level, Autonomists took on the representative role of managing other people’s struggles, 8 part of their maintenance of a political and leftist perspective.

In a recent interview Negri perhaps gives the game away:

We were absolutely opposed to totalitarianism in any form. We were seeking a true redistribution of wealth. It is almost impossible to live decently if one isn’t able to study, to work: society must be organised in such a way that people have these rights. This isn’t really a very utopian dream - the paradox is that many of the ideas that we advanced were later adopted by advanced capitalism!

The problem is that government, in order to make the job of managing society easier, invents increasingly elaborate disciplinary procedures. We offerred to take over this management role because we were searching for a real transformation of social relations. And it was this offer that the Italian authorities turned down so harshly.9

However such a management role needs to be explored, and Cleaver’s reply exposed the fact that a lot of our article simply articulated the sort of criticisms we and others have been making of Autonomist Marxism without developing them in a logical and persuasive manner. In part here we wish to avoid that scatter-gun approach by a much more focused article.

Rather than take on the whole gamut of what we think needs criticising in Autonomist Marxism, we look here at one important issue for Autonomist Marxism: its attempt to theorise reproductive labour. To remain even more focused, we take on what is to our knowledge the most comprehensive attempt to give the ideas of wages for housework etc. a theoretical base: Fortunati’s The Arcane of Reproduction.

A merit of Autonomist Marxism as against traditional Marxism is its ability to focus on struggles outside the industrial working class. Such struggles are indeed the manifestion of capitalist contradictions. A weakness of Autonomist Marxism is how this is theorised; the solution leads them to valorise (literally) these struggles, with imprecise use of categories to conflate different types of labour in a theoretical sleight of hand in which all distinctions and important mediations get lost.

In criticising Autonomist Marxism one doesn’t want to assimilate oneself to the critiques made by the traditional left. It is noticeable that one of the main things the left object to in, for example, Empire, is its abandonment of the politics of anti-imperialism and nationalism - i.e., one issue on which Negri and Hardt move in the right direction. In most cases, the traditional left criticise Autonomist Marxism for straying from their idea of politics, while for us it is the extent that Autonomist Marxism does not escape politics and representation that is the problem. But orthodox Marxism does have some points that hit home against the twists and turns of Autonomist Marxism, and one of them is that Negri and Hardt are wrong to abandon a theory of value. 10

Part of the renewal of interest in Autonomist Marxism is that its ideology of defending our Autonomy against capital, which was part of the movement of ’77 and partook of its weaknesses, fits with the ideological and practical limits of social movements today. The danger of a return to defending our Autonomy, our self-valorisation, our access to commons, is of failing to see what happens outside our milieus and scenes. While the struggle to defend the commons is still appropriate in parts of the world, in the advanced capitalist countries, where references to commons are tenuous to say the least, the pressing need is to turn capital as a whole into commons.

  • 1. http://www.eco.utexas.edu/Homepages/Faculty/Cleaver/AufhebenResponse2.pdf
  • 2. ‘The future at our backs: Autonomia and Autonomous social movements in 1970s’ Italy’ by Patrick Cuninghame http://ktru-main.lancs.ac.uk/CSEC/nscm.nsf/0/4e8a15e4d43857b8802567210071365b?OpenDocument
  • 3. Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2000, Harvard University Press)
  • 4. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2004, Penguin).
  • 5. Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism (2002, Pluto Press).
  • 6. In Working Class Autonomy and the Crisis (1979, Red Notes)
  • 7. 1991, Autonomedia. Originally published 1978.
  • 8. ‘Managing other peoples struggles’ is how Gilles Dauvé defines leftism in a section on Italian Autonomy. ‘Roman Des Origines’ (Recollecting Our Past), La Banquise, 1981, on Troploin website.
  • 9. Answering the question “You were defending communist ideas, then, not the Communist Party?’: Negri on Negri: Antonio Negri in conversation with Anne Dufourmantelle, (Routledge 2004 p. 6).
  • 10. See ‘Escape from the “Law of Value”’, Aufheben 5 (1996).