Jamie Woodcock writes on a session at Marxism 2013 on autonomism.
This meeting on Saturday morning began by Doug stating that autonomism comes in many forms and that perhaps different autonomists wouldn’t agree with his definition. But a common theme was the rejection of political organisation and parties. Autonomism is characterised by non-hierarchical organisations with open, consensus democracy – something seen in the Occupy movement.
The theoretical beginnings of autonomism in 1960s Italy were outlined, with particular attention paid to Toni Negri. Two points were made about his theory: that it involved a rejection of Leninism and that its methods of action could be substitutionist. Although Negri started with a conception of the working class, it became broadened out in the concept of the multitude.
Stop the War was characterised as the multitude on the streets, but it didn’t win. Not because direct action and protests aren’t important, but because there were no strikes or resistance in the workplace. Doug said the centrality of the working class wasn’t about counterposing strike action to other forms. Rather it was about recognising that the collective power of workers in their workplaces was the force capable of overthrowing capitalism.
The role of students was explained in this context: they can play an absolutely crucial role, not because they have the power to change the world, but because they can act as a spark. The student movement in 2010 provided an inspiration for trade unionists and the pensions dispute.
The talk moved on to the topic of precarious workers – which Doug argued is a big debate in the party at the moment. He argued that precarity is not a new phenomenon – different groups of workers have been subjected to precarious conditions, but equally the composition of the working class has always changed. He cited shop workers in train stations – who can join the RMT union – as a group of workers that we should be relating to. But he stressed that relating to groups of workers like this shouldn’t be counterposed to relating to those in public sector unions.
Doug concluded that autonomism does not address the problem of the state. It can be attractive in a period of struggle, but difficulties arise when struggle goes down. If “autonomism is the inspiration, Leninism is the answer”, he said.
The tone of the discussion was constructive and fraternal. There were examples of organising precarious workers and strategies for unionisation. A number of comrades spoke about Occupy and attempts to relate to autonomists. The usefulness of the term “autonomism” was questioned, with some arguing what they encountered at Occupy was more a movementist logic than a hardened autonomist position with a hostility to Leninism.
Comrades stressed that Leninists had to be flexible and that there were important commonalities between autonomism and the International Socialist tradition, such as the rejection of Stalinism and reformism. The strength of the discussion was a sense that speakers wanted to understand how to relate to the world at a time when the working class is changing and faces different conditions.
Note: This piece was published before rs21 was established as an independent organisation in January 2014. rs21 was founded by a group of people who had been in the opposition within the SWP and who left in response to its persistent mishandling of rape and sexual harassment allegations against a leading member.