Could someone explain the differences between Autonomism and Anarchism

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Vlad The Inhaler's picture
Vlad The Inhaler
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Jan 22 2019 16:12
Could someone explain the differences between Autonomism and Anarchism

I've not read any Autonomist literature, wouldn't know where to start to be honest, but what are the differences between Autonomism and Anarchism? Both appear to be anti-hierarchical, both seem to be anti-party, both seem to be against "respectable" bourgeois politics, both seem to be against vanguards, both seem to believe in the need for self-lead working class action, both seem to believe and put a lot of practical effort into pre-figurative politics.etc

So where do they disagree? Why would one identify as an autonomist and not an Anarchist?

Mike Harman
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Jan 22 2019 17:01

I don't think you can really hold up 'anarchism' as a single ideology that 'autonomism' would disagree with. Autonomism is a specific historical development of Marxism (i.e. out of '60s Italian workerism) whereas 'anarchism' is a much wider category.

This might help for getting a better understanding of where autonomism came from: http://libcom.org/library/libertarian-marxist-tendency-map

Also Harry Cleaver's Introduction in 'reading capital politically' covers similar ground.

Vlad The Inhaler's picture
Vlad The Inhaler
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Jan 22 2019 17:58

Thanks Mike, I know the rough potted history of Autonomism but what I don't understand is why, when you have rejected pretty everything even vaguely identifiable as Political Marxism that you would continue to identify with Marxism rather than acknowledging that you had instead, essentially, moved over to a broad Anarchist position.

Also, I recognise that in the early period it can be difficult to see that your movement is changing its orientation, especially amidst struggle but the Autonomists have been around for decades now.

I suppose its like a group of former Anarchists persisting in calling themselves Anarchists even after forming themselves into a political party, calling for participation in bourgeois elections and insisting that maybe state power can be won for Anarchist ends after all. One would quite rightly point out that rather than them having found a niche within Anarchism, they had in fact repudiated Anarchism and adopted a platform indistinguishable from most Marxist groups.

Maybe I'm missing something.

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R Totale
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Jan 22 2019 19:23

There's a very old thread discussing a similar question here: https://libcom.org/forums/theory/autonomousist-marxism-half-baked-anarcho-syndicalism-01062009

Just to make things even trickier, I'd say that "autonomism" is a bit too wide and complex to be considered as one thing either, but I guess that the closest things to autonomist groupings in the UK at the moment are Plan C and the Angry Workers of the World, who I think both are pretty open about having at least some proximity to anarchism, I think that both have stalls at anarchist bookfairs and things.

Mike Harman
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Jan 22 2019 19:30
Vlad The Inhaler wrote:
when you have rejected pretty everything even vaguely identifiable as Political Marxism that you would continue to identify with Marxism rather than acknowledging that you had instead, essentially, moved over to a broad Anarchist position.

Well that I think comes down to the reclamation of Marx by Marxists, which starts with the council communists (Pannekoek's critique of Lenin for example), but picks up speed massively post-war with Dunayevska and CLR James. A common thread among a lot of this lot is they still spent some effort having a go at anarchists, for example here: https://libcom.org/library/anarchism-not-suitable-anton-pannekoek

Marxism then becomes a theoretical framework that is used to oppose Leninism, rather than the (frequent, not always) anarchist conception of Marxism leading inexorably to Leninism.

Also with the example of CLR James, while he completely rejected the Leninist party (seeing the role of the political group to produce a 'workers' paper' and theory in Facing Reality), he never quite rejected Lenin or some of the stagist aspects of Marxism: https://libcom.org/library/silences-suppression-workers-self-emancipation-historical-problems-clr-jamess-interpreta

Vlad the Inhaler wrote:
Also, I recognise that in the early period it can be difficult to see that your movement is changing its orientation, especially amidst struggle but the Autonomists have been around for decades now.

I agree with this, but then I feel the same about people identifying themselves specifically as platformists, anarcho-syndicalists or things like post-left anarchism too - they might represent different organisational approaches but a lot of that can end up being superficial. There is often more variation between some of the things described by these terms than between them.

Mike Harman
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Jan 22 2019 19:36
Vlad The Inhaler wrote:
I suppose its like a group of former Anarchists persisting in calling themselves Anarchists even after forming themselves into a political party, calling for participation in bourgeois elections and insisting that maybe state power can be won for Anarchist ends after all.

There's no shortage of this with post-autonomist stuff either though, including some parts of Plan C. For a very detailed look at this see FH Pitts on 'machine-fragmentist social democracy': https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03085147.2017.1397360

Or me and QQ: https://libcom.org/blog/poverty-luxury-communism-05042018

Or some of the responses to Inventing the Future. Gorz is probably the early archetype of this although not really any autonomist afaik.

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Jan 22 2019 19:50
Vlad The Inhaler wrote:
Thanks Mike, I know the rough potted history of Autonomism but what I don't understand is why, when you have rejected pretty everything even vaguely identifiable as Political Marxism that you would continue to identify with Marxism rather than acknowledging that you had instead, essentially, moved over to a broad Anarchist position.

Actually, I think there's been quite a lot of autonomists that haven't identified themselves with marxism, even if the former developed out of the latter. Though I must say, autonomism isn't really a popular tendency among the anti-statist Left nowadays. I mean, how many people do you know label themselves as such? They don't even have much of a presence on the internet.

Vlad The Inhaler wrote:
I suppose its like a group of former Anarchists persisting in calling themselves Anarchists even after forming themselves into a political party, calling for participation in bourgeois elections and insisting that maybe state power can be won for Anarchist ends after all. One would quite rightly point out that rather than them having found a niche within Anarchism, they had in fact repudiated Anarchism and adopted a platform indistinguishable from most Marxist groups.

The analogy here doesn't work, simply because marxism could mean a wide range of things to it's adherents. At the very least, a marxist is someone who regards the works of Karl Marx of central importance. It is obvious that it is possible to reconcile some of his ideas, or say for example, his analysis of capitalism with an anti-statist communist politics.

I for one refuse to call myself a marxist, and would discourage others from doing so. I don't think I need to go into reasons here and now.

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Jan 24 2019 12:29

I would have agreed Agent if it were not for having read The First Socialist Schism in which Marx and his minions make pretty clear that Communism is (a) a formal political project that (b) necessitates a formal political party that (c) is nationally focused, that (d) preferably finds common cause with republican/democratic/moderate/liberal parties of the nation in which said party is based, that (e) is organised from the top to the bottom and, the centre to the circumference and that (f) stands in bourgeois elections and that (g) seeks to establish, through radical reforms, a platform from which a revolutionary program can be launched.

In Marx's own words and actions in the first international there seems little room for autonomous, spontaneous, extra-parliamentary work such as that advocated by the Autonomists or the Libertarian Marxists.

Mike Harman
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Jan 24 2019 14:42

Have you read the Civil War in France though? https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/civil-war-france/index.htm

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Jan 24 2019 15:45

Of course. The problem is that it seems to defy everything else he ever said and particularly the sort of political organisations that he was active in building. I used to consider myself a Marxist, in the political sense, and the 'CWiF' was a classic go to text to refute Anarchists but when you take it in the context of Marx's actual practice and written work (in the strictly political milieu) then 'CWiF' is a curious anomaly rather than a consistent and principled account of Marx's politics.

Leninists have been citing State and Revolution to 'refute' Bolshevisms criticisms for a hundred years because it speaks in a language entirely contradictory to Bolshevik practice.

Mike Harman
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Jan 24 2019 19:33

I think the Civil War in France is more useful to refute Marxists/Leninists though, and it describes events that were unprecedented for Marx by that point. Does not mean he wasn't slipping back into party building later on of course. There is obviously work that supports autonomous working class action, it's just in the context of other work that doesn't - because Marx was quite inconsistent especially in terms of practical politics.

Same as Lenin's April 1917 'A proletarian militia' https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/apr/20b.htm which emphasises the importance of elected army officers can be contrasted with Trotsky's 1918 piece cancelling those elections and putting former Tsarist officers in instead: https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1918/03/work.htm

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Jan 25 2019 16:15
Agent of the International wrote:
a marxist is someone who regards the works of Karl Marx of central importance.

That would make both Bakunin and carlo cafiero marxist, the later even wrote a compendium to capital https://www.marxists.org/archive/cafiero/1879/summary-of-capital.htm

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Jan 25 2019 17:48

Agent said "works" in the plural. I don't think Cafiero or Bakunin could ever be accused of holding the Communist Manifesto or the Critique of the Gotha Program as the key theoretical guides to revolutionary action.

It may be a narrow definition but I tend to think that a Marxist is someone that accepts Marx's political as well as philosophical positions. I think it all depends on the context. Within the academic sphere, say within art history, you could legitimately consider yourself of the Marxist tradition and indeed employ some Marxist techniques in your historiography and criticism but it doesn't make you, in of itself, a Marxist. Given that Marx was above all else a political figure, his other works were either trifles or conceived as giving the proletariat better weapons with which to fight. Marx did not consider himself a benign philosopher. He was himself as a revolutionary. Therefore, I argue that to be a Marxist is not to find value in Capital (pardon the pun), is not to find value in his theory of Alienation (for example) but to share his views on social development and, by implication, his centralist, stageist, statist and incrementalist political strategy.