The Politics of Revolution: Learning from Autonomist Marxism

Gary Kinsman

Introduction: Not All Power to Capital

Autonomist Marxism can be seen as a form of Marxism that focuses on developing working class autonomy and power in a capitalist society that is constituted by and through class struggle. One of the strengths of autonomist Marxism is its critique of political economy interpretations of Marxism that end up reifying the social worlds around us, converting what people socially produce into social relationships between things. Most “orthodox” Marxist political economy gives all power to capital and considers workers as victims without power or agency. In my work and writing I have tried to recognize the resistance and agency of the oppressed and how this agency and action obstructs ruling relations, often forcing the elaboration of new strategies of ruling. For me, autonomist Marxism has provided a much firmer basis for this very different reading of Marxism.

In the 1970s, I had a number of close encounters with autonomist Marxism and currents related to it. When I was a young Trotskyist in the Revolutionary Marxist Group in the 1970s I remember debates with members and supporters of the New Tendency (a current in Toronto and Windsor influenced by the Italian New Left and Lotta Continua). I argued, as I had been told, that they were “spontaneists” who didn’t grasp the need for a party building approach. Some feminists in the New Tendency became engaged with a wages against housework campaign built from the autonomist Marxist notion of capitalism as a social factory that extended beyond the factory walls. Autonomist Marxist feminists like Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Selma James, and Silvia Federici argued that women doing domestic labour were not only labouring for individual men but also for capital and were participating in producing labour power as a commodity used by capitalists. Looking back on it now, I was quite wrong in my arguments that the problem was “spontaneism” and that domestic labour did not produce value. After leaving the Trotskyist/Leninist left in 1980 because of its refusal to be transformed by feminism and movements for lesbian/gay liberation, I was influenced by Sheila Rowbotham’s book Beyond the Fragments, particularly her critique of Leninism, and by organizations in England such as Big Flame and the Beyond the Fragments network. Big Flame was also influenced by Lotta Continua and other currents on the Italian left and attempted to prioritize building autonomous class and social struggles ahead of building itself as a revolutionary organization.

Not Just Antonio Negri

In talking about autonomist Marxism it is important not to reduce it to its most famous exponent in the English speaking world, Antonio Negri, co-author of Empire and Multitude. Despite his important contributions to autonomist Marxism in both theoretical and activist spheres, it is important to view autonomist Marxism as a political space which contains a number of different trends. What brings these currents together is a commitment to valorizing working class struggles against capital, an emphasis on the self-organization of the working class, and an opposition to statist conceptions of socialism and communism. Autonomy in autonomist Marxism can be seen as autonomy from both capital and the official leaderships of the trade unions and political parties and the capacity and necessity of groups of workers who experience different oppressions to act autonomously from others (blacks from whites, women from men, queers from straights).

It is important to locate autonomist Marxism in its social and historical contexts as it actually has roots that predate the Italian New Left of the late 1950s and 1960s. One place to start is with the work of C.L.R. James and his associates who focused on the need for working class autonomy and power – including the autonomy of workers from unions and political parties. They based a lot of their theoretical and practical work on learning from workers and the autonomous struggle of black people in the US and around the world. C.L.R. James and the Facing Reality group, who developed a substantial critique of the Leninist vanguard party, also had connections with the ex-Trotskyist Socialisme ou Barbarie group in France, and through this connection, activists in Italy came to be aware of this strand of critical Marxism.

Working Class Struggles and the Return to Marx

This writing and analysis came together in Italy with dissidents in the Communist and Socialist Parties who were focusing on working class struggle and experience and becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the perspectives of their parties, including such writers as Mario Tronti, Raniero Panzieri, Sergio Bologna, and Antonio Negri. This tendency initially described itself as operaismo or ‘workerism’, given its focus on working class experience at the point of production. They focused on working class struggle and autonomy. Based on their extensive contacts with workers, they produced detailed analyses of working class experience and the social organization and re-organization of production. Their theory and practice soon moved outside the factory, but the relationships between the development of autonomist Marxism, working class struggles and other movements in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s is important to understand. Autonomist Marxists argued that the working class is not reducible to labour power (a commodity); instead, it is the active force producing capitalism and its internal transformations. This brought about a reversal of “orthodox Marxism” which instead of giving all power to capital considered working class struggle rather than capital as the dynamic, initiating social force of production.

For instance, technological transformations within capitalism have often developed in relation to working class struggles and as attempts to weaken working class struggles and organizing. Many of the initiators of autonomous Marxism went back to Marx’s writings on the significance of working class struggles in the social organization of capital. They reminded us that Marx argued that it is workers who are the active agents in producing the new wealth in capitalist societies through the exploitation of surplus value from their labour in the process of production. The initial capitalist strategy of raising the rate of the exploitation of workers through lengthening the working day (increasing the absolute rate of exploitation), was defeated in large part by workers resisting and refusing this strategy. It was the active blocking of this strategy through workers’ struggles to limit the length of the working day that led to the strategy of increasing exploitation by technological applications, speeding up production and inventing new forms of “scientific management.” Many autonomist Marxist theorists and activists rediscovered/remembered that capital is a social relation in which the working class is an active component. Working class struggle is therefore internal to capital (both within and against capital) and carries the possibility of breaking with it.

Class Composition and Cycles of Struggle

Autonomist Marxism has developed a number of important tools for analyzing and thinking through working class struggles. As long as these terms are not understood as monolithic in character and are used in a concrete social and historical sense and are integrated with analyses of gender, racialization, sexuality, ability and other lines of social difference they can be very helpful in our struggles and attempts to theorize working class struggles.

Autonomist Marxist theorists and activists use the expression “working class composition” to refer to the specific forms of social organization of the working class in relation to capital in particular situations. For instance: how integrated is the working class into capitalist relations, how internally divided is the working class, how autonomous is working class activity from capital or how are social relations being subverted in working class struggles of a particular context or period? Unlike in some traditional Marxist contexts, the “working class” is not thought of as an object or a classification, rather it is always in process of becoming and exists in a context of struggle. It is continually changing and in the process of remaking itself and being remade. History and shifting forms of social organization therefore become crucial to grasping working class experience and struggle. Capitalists actively struggle to “decompose” the capacities and strengths of working class composition by exacerbating and re-organizing internal divisions in the working class, ripping apart sources of working class and oppressed people’s power, fragmenting groups and struggles and extending social surveillance. These attempts to destroy working class struggles produce new conditions for the possible re-composition of working class struggle and power.

The continuing process of class composition, decomposition, and re-composition constitutes a “cycle of struggle” within autonomist Marxism. Understanding these cycles of struggle and our positions within them is crucial for evaluating our own sources of power and weakness and for determining how to move forward. For autonomist Marxism the notion of circulation of struggles is used to get at the ways through which different struggles and movements impact on and transform each other, sometimes circulating the most ‘advanced’ forms of struggle across geographical locations and creating important ruptures with capitalist relations. Autonomist Marxist theorists have differentiated between different forms of the social organization of working class struggle. This includes the organization of skilled craft workers in the early parts of the 20th century, which was in turn decomposed by the organization of “scientific management” and mass production. This process then created the basis for the re-composition of the mass and industrial workers through large scale factory production and ‘scientific management’ of workers in the mid 20th century, a process also linked to the development of the “welfare-state” and Keynesian social and economic policies.

In the 1960s and 1970s autonomist Marxists saw the emergence of the less clearly defined and more diffuse ‘socialized worker’ of the ‘social factory,’ as capitalist production moved beyond factory walls and came to organize and shape community and everyday life through pervasive consumer/state relations. Areas of household and community life also became terrains of class and social struggle against capital involving domestic labour, housing, health, school work, and sexuality. These struggles included those not only of ‘productive’ labour but also those of ‘reproductive’ labour as capitalist relations were extended to the social organization of desire and consumption. Autonomous struggles of women, lesbians and gay men, people of colour, immigrants, and other oppressed groups who struggle against not only capital but against groups of workers who participate in their oppression and marginalization thus became increasingly visible and disruptive to capitalist social relations. Faced with the struggles against the imposition of work by ‘socialized workers’ capital abandoned the program of the Keynesian ‘welfare state’ and sought to decompose working class struggles via neo-liberalism and the establishment of what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have termed “Empire”.

Autonomist Marxism has shown how differing forms of organization and consciousness emerge in relation to different forms of working class composition and different cycles and circulation of struggles. These forms of organization are historically and socially specific. For instance some autonomist Marxist theorists and historians have pointed out how skilled craft workers often fought to establish more control over their work and how in various ways this led to an emphasis on workers control of production. This also inspired and created the basis for both the various mobilizations associated with Leninism and the vanguard party but also for Council Communism (where liberation was to be achieved through the establishment of workers councils) which developed a radical left challenge to capitalist relations and stressed working class autonomy in the historical context of the early 20th century. While Leninism as an organizational and political practice may have once made some sense in these conditions, it no longer does. The mass worker was the basis for the Idustrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the USA, for the mass industrial unions in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) later on, and for the struggles in Italy in the late 1960s. In response to these mass concentrations of workers and outbreaks of class struggle capitalists have struggled to decompose and fragment these struggles in part by dismantling the earlier Fordist organization of mass production.

In the period of the ‘socialized’ worker, resistance grows against the imposition of work, struggles expand beyond the narrow point of production into the realm of consumption, while different sections of the working class seek control over home and community life by struggling for ‘self-valorization’. “Self-valorization” is a term used within autonomist Marxism to get at how workers struggles in a broad sense are not only against capitalist relations but are also attempts to create alternative ways of life that overcome capitalist and oppressive relations. Workers struggle not only for autonomy from capital but also for self-valorization in a range of different ways by breaking free from capitalist relations and seeking to build a different way of living. There is a certain commonality here with the notion of prefigurative struggles developed by Sheila Rowbotham in Beyond the Fragments where she argued for the need for activists to reimagine a possible future in our struggles and organizing in the present. This development of alternatives to capitalist and oppressive relations, and the emergence of glimpses and moments of experience of a possible future, become crucial in developing our struggles today.

The Continuing Impact of Autonomist Marxism

In 1976-77 autonomist Marxism became the major force within radical Italian left struggles after the exhaustion of the strategies of the other currents on the revolutionary left. The autonomia movement of 1977 was incredibly intense but was unfortunately trapped between the repressive forces of the state on one hand and the political limitations of the urban guerilla approach of the Red Brigades on the other. Thousands of activists were arrested and imprisoned. Since then there has been a major influence of autonomia in organizing and struggles in Italy including the Tute Blanche and the Disobbedienti in the global justice and social centre movements.

Around the world there is an important influence of autonomia and autonomist Marxism in global justice struggles and also among many who are involved in the Open Borders and No One Is Illegal struggles. In Argentina recent struggles have been informed by autonomia and autonomist Marxism. The Zapatista revolt has been a major reference point for many activists around the world in developing new ways to struggle against capital that do not sacrifice the autonomy of different oppressed groups. Many of the analytic tools of autonomist Marxism can be very useful in our current struggles and debates. The notion of cycles of struggle can be very useful and the concept of a circulation of struggles that spreads struggles between groups of people who are moving against oppression and exploitation remains key. The struggles of the Zapatistas circulated through the use of the internet (a form of technology developed by capital but able in some ways turned against it) and other social and political networks prevented this revolt from being repressed by the Mexican military and state forces. However, it also created a space for new international forms of organizing against capitalism and oppression. This form of struggle in turn influenced the emergence of a global justice movement in the late 1990s. It has led to the international circulation of experiences through struggles and organizing that pushed forward not only the techniques and levels of struggle but also our abilities to understand and challenge the weak links in global capitalist organization. This also led to the rapid generalization of the experiences of affinity groups, spokescouncils, and direct action politics in many places around the globe including Seattle, Prague, Québec City, Genoa, and Cancun.

During the Mine Mill/Canadian Auto Worker Local 598 strike of 2000-2001 against Falconbridge/Noranda in Sudbury, in which there was considerable rank and file self-activity, a certain heightening of the levels of struggle took place by union militants connecting with union activists in CAW Flying Squads in southern Ontario and activists in CUPE 3903 who had just won a very successful strike against the York university administration (and who brought the slogan “Strike to Win!” to Sudbury), and in a more limited way with the militant anti-poverty activism of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty.

Facilitating this circulation of struggles was important to furthering anti-capitalist politics. We can see here how the circulation of struggles can be incredibly useful and is built upon our own praxis. Movements and struggles need to be self-organized but there is also a need for solidarity between different struggles and to learn from each other. All struggles and forms of exploitation/oppression have a mutually constructed or mediated character, being not only autonomous but also organized in and through each other. Within autonomist Marxism, unlike in other Marxist approaches, there is no problem with autonomy and diversity. The goal is to try to develop a politics of difference that transcends antagonisms between different sections of the working class and the oppressed.

While the moment of autonomy is well established in Autonomist Marxism we also need to move beyond autonomy. We need struggles that overcome social contradictions using a “politics of responsibility” approach with those of us in oppressing positions recognizing our own implication within and responsibility to actively challenge relations of oppression. This approach so far remains relatively underdeveloped within autonomist Marxism. At the same time we need to see the multiplication of struggles, the generalization of struggles, and learning from each other in struggle as crucial. Through this process, oppositional and transformative struggles can become unmanageable within the framework of capitalist relations and we can burst beyond these boundaries.

Moving beyond organizing to “seize power.”

This also means that, like the Zapatistas, we need to refuse the history and traditions of left organizing that seek to “seize state power” and which claim the “leadership” of the working class. These forms of organizing end up replicating all the old shit – relations of hierarchy, command, top-down relations, forms of oppression, and of stifling grass roots and direct action initiatives and creativity. Instead we need to find ways to organize that facilitate and catalyze working class and oppressed people’s self-activity and their own power (“power to” as opposed to “power over,” to use John Holloway’s expression) and to facilitate the circulations of struggles to undercut and deconstruct the ‘power over’ of capital, bureaucratic and state relations, and various forms of oppression. These developments create new spaces for making actual the politics of revolution – but revolution no longer understood as the moment of insurrection, or of “seizing power” but as a long, and ongoing process of contestation and transformation in many different social sites and settings. It is not just capital and the state in a narrow sense that are the problem, but all forms of oppression and exploitation. An important part of the struggle involves a struggle against ourselves and for the transformation of ourselves since we are also implicated in capitalist relations and quite often relations of oppression (or “power over”).

Crucial to this is the building of new forms of organizing where we can begin to experience and live a sense of what a world defined by direct democracy, without the domination of capital and without forms of oppression will be like, which will give us more energy to carry on the struggle. Of course many questions remain including how to build anti-oppression politics more fully into autonomist Marxism; what the composition of struggles are in Canada and the USA where the ‘war on terror’ has been used relatively successfully to divide and weaken activist movements and struggles; and what struggles are the most important for us to circulate to produce more effective and escalated levels of social struggle. These are some of the questions we need to discuss. But the red threads of autonomist Marxism can allow us to rethink and recreate a politics of revolution for our time.

Some suggested readings

Kaili Beck, Chris Bowes, Gary Kinsman, Mercedes Steedman, Peter Suschnigg, eds., Mine Mill Fights Back, Mine Mill/CAW Local 598 Strike 2000-2001, Sudbury: Mine Mill/CAW Local 598, 2005.

Paul Thompson and Guy Lewis, The Revolution Unfinished? A Critique of Trotskyism, Big Flame, Liverpool, England, 1977. Also at

Harry Cleaver, Reading Capital Politically, AK Press/Antithesis, 2000. A range of Cleaver’s important writings can be found at

Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community, Bristol: Falling Wall Press, 1972.

Nick Dyer-Witheford, Cyber-Marx, Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High-Technology Capitalism, Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Silvia Federici, Wages Against Housework, London: Power of Women Collective and Falling Wall Press, 1975.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Cambridge Mass, Harvard University Press, 2000.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude, War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, New York: Penguin, 2004.

John Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power, London: Pluto, 2002.

C.L.R. James, Grace C. Lee and Pierre Chaulieu, Facing Reality, Detroit: Bewick, 1974.

Notes from Nowhere, eds., We Are Everywhere, the Irresistible Rise of Global Anticapitalism, Verso Press, 2003.

Sheila Rowbotham, “The Women’s Movement and Organizing for Socialism,” in Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism, Merlin Press, 1979.

Lynne Segal, Sheila Rowbotham, Hilary Wainwright, Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism, Merlin Press, 1979.

Steve Wright, Storming Heaven, Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism, London: Pluto, 2002.