This is a re-post of an article by Steven Johns on libcom.org an Anarchist Federation member. We were going to write our own response to the original article available here, but decided this was better than we would have put things.
It is an open letter to Socialist Worker newspaper in response to “Autonomism and the fight for change” by Estelle Cooch.
I write in response to Estelle Cooch’s article “Autonomism and the fight for change” in SW issue 2246, 9 April 2011.
Of all the frequently inaccurate articles on anarchism in the socialist press, I’m afraid that this one surpasses them all in terms of its level of complete baloney. I note with concern that this article is meant to be the first in a series looking at the ideas of anarchism and autonomism. However from the first sentence it is clear that the author knows absolutely nothing about either.
I will address it in the order in which it appears.
My first real encounter with anarchist ideas, although I didn’t know it at the time, was at school when I was part of organising a student walk-out against the Iraq war.
One group of friends wanted only a small number of pupils to walk out, and to daub anti-war graffiti on a rival school.
The majority of us, however, argued that our success would depend on the number of students who walked out together. We tried to win a majority using posters and leaflets.
Eventually we were proved right. And more students walking out also meant we could provide solidarity to students who were victimised.
Now the mistake here is that this was not her first encounter with anarchist ideas. There is no evidence of any sort of anarchism here. What she had an encounter with here was a group of kids who wanted to graffiti something. Arguing against a mass walkout is completely contradictory to any kind of anarchism. And indeed, anarchist schoolkids did participate in and help lead anti-war walkouts in their schools. See this contemporary discussion by pupils in the Anarchist Youth Network for example.
In situations like this, anarchists can appear very radical—let’s take the small group we’ve got and go for it! Marxists, in repeating the importance of “mass action” which involves more than just a small group of activists, can seem a bit tedious by comparison.
Again – she is not referring to anarchists here, but just most likely some antisocial kids she has dubbed “anarchists”. When I was on strike with half a million council workers back in 2008 over a sub inflationary pay rise I didn’t say to my co-workers, hey let’s not bother trying to get everyone out let’s go over the road and tag that library. I went round, spoke to people, including agency workers and non-union members arguing for solidarity. And in the end my team was one of the strongest in my council, with one of the highest union densities, 100% of union members out and several agency workers and non-members refusing to cross picket lines.
We are hoping to build on this for our upcoming strike against job cuts.
On the contrary, small group vanguardism has been characteristic of many Marxist and Leninist organisations, such as the Red Army Faction, which is much criticised by anarchists.
Many activists now call themselves “autonomists”, and more are influenced by autonomist ideas.
I would dispute that that many call themselves “autonomists” or that those that do are more influenced by autonomist ideas, but moving on…
Autonomism shares many of the characteristics of anarchism. Its main idea is a rejection of organisation.
This is completely false. Firstly, it implies that the rejection of organisation is a characteristic autonomism shares with anarchism. Whereas in fact the exact opposite is true. As leading anarchist Errico Malatesta always said: “anarchism is about organisation, organisation, organisation”.
Secondly, autonomism does not reject the idea of organisation in the slightest. And I ask Estelle what her source for claiming that.
The author basically seems to have no idea of what anarchism or autonomism actually are. For starters autonomism is something which has come out of Marxism and Leninism! I would recommend her having a read of Steve Wright’s http://libcom.org/library/storming-heaven-class-composition-struggle-italian-autonomist-marxism-steve-wright for an induction.
It believes small, imaginative groups of radicals should act on behalf of the masses.
No it doesn’t. If anyone claims the contrary, where are their references/evidence?
It says the creation of “autonomous” spaces like occupations allows us to carve out alternative societies within the system.
Now I get an idea of where the use of “autonomist” is coming from. In fact this sort of “autonomous spaces” politics is espoused by some individualists, but is derided by the vast majority of anarchists and autonomists.
Usually, differences between Marxism and autonomism rest on three points: leadership, political parties and the state.
This isn’t right either, but I want to keep this letter short so I won’t go into it here.
When it comes to leadership, autonomists reject the “leadership” of capitalist society, where the wealthiest Eton toffs are in charge. So do we.
Actually, I think that the description of our capitalist leaders as the “wealthiest Eton toffs” is actually laughably juvenile, and not at all an accurate description of the situation we are in. “Socialist” leaders from working-class backgrounds are pushing through austerity measures the same as the Conservatives here, as would Labour if they were in power.
And they are also right that the “leadership” offered by trade union and labour leaders is not always a pretty picture.
This is something of an understatement…
When union officials leave behind the drudgery of everyday work, they can lose touch with those they represent.
This is a gross simplification of the forces at work which set union officials against the working class. The main issue is the unions’ structural role in contemporary capitalism as negotiators on the sale of labour power. But again, this is another discussion.
But this is not what Marxists mean by leadership. Leadership exists at every moment in history. The person who argues for strikes, the person who shouts “push” against a line of riot police, the person who picks up the stone to throw at Israeli tanks—they are all leaders.
Of course, anarchists have no problem with this type of leadership.
In some university occupations, autonomists argued that voting is hierarchical and creates “leaders”, so all decisions should be agreed by everyone using consensus decision-making.
Again, I don’t know on what basis Estelle is calling these people “autonomists”. But using consensus decision-making is not something which is inherently anarchist at all – many anarchists have written extensively against it, for example here.
The question of leadership leads directly to the question of parties. Autonomists rightly reject the corrupt, undemocratic parties in parliament.
But a revolutionary party aims to bring together workers’ different experiences to come to a general strategy for fighting back. The capitalists have a high level of organisation—we need to organise together if we are to challenge them.
As stated above, anarchists of course do believe in organisation. What we are against is workers attempting to use political parties to conquer state power.
One important form of capitalist organisation is the state. The state is a tool the rich minority use to maintain their class rule, sometimes violently.
Autonomists and Marxists often disagree over what to do about this.
The autonomist John Holloway, author of Change the World Without Taking Power, argues that “you cannot build a society of non-power relations by conquering power”.
He suggests that small “cracks” in capitalism can be revolutionary without directly confronting the state. But the problem is that the state is hugely oppressive—we cannot afford to ignore it as Holloway suggests.
The revolutionary Vladimir Lenin said, “The state is a product of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms.”
It will attempt to crush any threat to itself, as we can see in Libya. To build a revolution that will last, workers have to smash the capitalist state.
The first problem here is is that again the author has not done her reading. John Holloway is a Marxist. And I (and most anarchists) would not agree with everything he says. (See this review of Change the world… for example)
Anarchists would agree that we need to smash the state. The problem with Leninism is that Leninist parties have not attempted to smash the capitalist state, but instead have taken it over and attempted to use it to institute socialism. In every instance this has had disastrous results, and instead of socialism it has resulted in state capitalism.
Ultimately, however, autonomism cannot be a successful strategy for ending the horrors of capitalist society. Karl Marx identified the key to overthrowing capitalism—the mass power of the international working class.
As for this, the author has absolutely no idea what autonomism is, and so can’t really make that first statement, and as for the second, we would of course agree with old Charlie on that wholeheartedly.
Local government worker and a member of libcom.org and the Anarchist Federation