What is autonomism? Why is it so hard to figure out?

Submitted by Agent of the I… on June 9, 2023

Autonomism, or autonomist Marxism, is something I could never figure out. It describes a current from the 60s and 70s. It was popular in Italy. That's really all I know. Is is proposing the idea that the working class should be autonomous from state, parties and unions, hence the name? Sometimes it seems more like an analysis of the composition of the working class.

R Totale

8 months 2 weeks ago

Submitted by R Totale on June 9, 2023

I think that, like with many of these things, it gets used to describe different things - by the time you get on to the German autonomen you're talking about something quite different to the original Autonomia Operaia lot.
An old thread here covering some of the same ground: https://libcom.org/forums/theory/could-someone-explain-differences-between-autonomism-anarchism-22012019
Although the even older thread I linked to in that seems to be gone, which is a shame cos it was helpful. Short answer is that I think it does tend to get used to mean that, but I think the name originally comes from the idea that the working class is autonomous from capital, and so it refers to a (fairly abstract and high-level) debate within Marxism about how far the development of capitalism is driven by internal capitalist competition vs how far it's driven by capital's need to respond to working-class activity, with the latter being the autonomist position.
And yeah, I think most people who self-describe as autonomists/autono-Marxists would argue that the w/c should be autonomous from parties and unions, but the original autonomist/operaist theories came out of people who had varying levels of sympathy for the idea of working within the PCI, and you can arguably trace a line from that to some contemporary autonomists having a soft spot for Labour (at least under Corbyn, harder to make those arguments nowadays though!) So, it's a bit complicated.
Steve Wright's the main English-language writer on yer classical autonomist Marxism, e.g.: https://libcom.org/article/party-autonomy-steve-wright
And here's a debate between the CWO and an anarchist on whether autonomism was any good or not:
https://libcom.org/article/autonomism-cutting-ground-under-marxism
https://nothingiseverlost.wordpress.com/2017/09/18/the-partys-over-a-reply-on-autonomism-organisation-and-bad-history/
https://libcom.org/article/autonomism-many-flowers-little-fruit

rat

8 months 2 weeks ago

Submitted by rat on June 10, 2023

There's also:
Storming Heaven: class composition and struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism by Steve Wright:
https://libcom.org/article/storming-heaven-class-composition-and-struggle-italian-autonomist-marxism-steve-wright
The book is available as a mobi file.
Apologies if the link has already been posted, I couldn't see it though.

Submitted by Steven. on June 10, 2023

R Totale wrote:
An old thread here covering some of the same ground: https://libcom.org/forums/theory/could-someone-explain-differences-between-autonomism-anarchism-22012019
Although the even older thread I linked to in that seems to be gone, which is a shame cos it was helpful.

FYI, this is now back: https://libcom.org/discussion/autonomousist-marxism-half-baked-anarcho-syndicalism

Agent of the I…

8 months 2 weeks ago

Submitted by Agent of the I… on June 12, 2023

The term 'autonomism' was actually used by anarchists in the late 19th century Italy. It referred specifically to anti-organizationists within the anarchist movement. Were autonomist Marxists even aware of that? Maybe it wasn't in much use by the time Marxists decided to pick it up, and it really didn't have any baggage.

sherbu-kteer

8 months 2 weeks ago

Submitted by sherbu-kteer on June 12, 2023

In case people are interested, a collective I'm part of got Steve Wright to publish a response to a Trotskyist article about autonomism – despite its polemical nature it may still be helpful in clearing up misconceptions about the topic since the article it's responding to is basically a compendium of them.

https://www.redblacknotes.com/2023/03/29/some-comments-on-a-recent-article-regarding-operaismo-and-autonomism-steve-wright/

There's also the amorphous informal definition of autonomism used by a bunch of different Marxist groups, referring to something like the non-party radical left. It's become a generic hostile descriptor for them, like how "economist" is used to describe someone excessively concerned with workplace struggles.

I remember when a Trotskyist organisation here (the Australian relative of the SWP UK, if that gives context to British comrades) wanted to write a critique of autonomism and anarchism, but had no idea how to do so.

Instead of realising they had mistaken their own perjorative for an actual coherent political doctrine, they just pretended it was real and decided John Holloway was the Pope of it and critiqued him instead. Even though Holloway is hardly ever read anymore, at least outside of academia, and even then...

Submitted by Steven. on June 12, 2023

Agent of the International wrote: The term 'autonomism' was actually used by anarchists in the late 19th century Italy. It referred specifically to anti-organizationists within the anarchist movement.

You got any primary sources about that we can learn more? Have never heard of this.

Submitted by Steven. on June 12, 2023

sherbu-kteer wrote:
I remember when a Trotskyist organisation here (the Australian relative of the SWP UK, if that gives context to British comrades) wanted to write a critique of autonomism and anarchism, but had no idea how to do so.

That reminds me of the time the UK SWP tried to critique anarchism and autonomism, and got the article written by an imbecile https://libcom.org/article/open-letter-socialist-worker-autonomism-and-fight-change

Submitted by Agent of the I… on June 12, 2023

Steven. wrote:

Agent of the International wrote: The term 'autonomism' was actually used by anarchists in the late 19th century Italy. It referred specifically to anti-organizationists within the anarchist movement.

You got any primary sources about that we can learn more? Have never heard of this.

I first heard this from Malatesta. I can't remember exactly where he wrote it. He's talking specifically about anarchism in Italy. But it's interesting that Max Nettlau's A Short History of Anarchism also mentions the term three times, the first two times in the context of Spanish anarchism. If you have the PDF available from theanarchistlibrary.org, you can find it on pages 116 and 117.

Agent of the I…

8 months 2 weeks ago

Submitted by Agent of the I… on June 12, 2023

In David Turcato's Making Sense of Anarchism, the author states, in page 102, that early opponents of organization labeled themselves 'autonomists'. So it's not actually Malatesta I heard it from. But it is a book about Malatesta.

Submitted by R Totale on June 13, 2023

sherbu-kteer wrote:
Instead of realising they had mistaken their own perjorative for an actual coherent political doctrine, they just pretended it was real and decided John Holloway was the Pope of it and critiqued him instead. Even though Holloway is hardly ever read anymore, at least outside of academia, and even then...

I was just thinking, you never really hear about John Holloway anymore, he definitely had his moment as the spokesperson for something (post-anti-glob-style autonomism, or something?) but it's a name I've hardly heard in years.

sherbu-kteer

8 months 1 week ago

Submitted by sherbu-kteer on June 14, 2023

Paul Blackledge and Alex Callinicos critiqued him so thoroughly that he retired as a political writer to spare himself the shame of being wrong.

But nah, I think he just fell victim to the general shift on the left post-Occupy towards electoral ventures. He's definitely still around and publishes both articles and books just without the attention he used to get.