Recovering the History of Canadian Autonomist Marxism

Gary Kinsman

Dear UTA,

I was very pleased to see John Huot’s “Autonomist Marxism and Workplace Organizing in Canada in the 1970s” in the last issue of Upping the Anti. It provides an excellent overview of the Autonomist Marxist (AM) inspired organizing in Canada/Turtle Island in the 1970s with a focus on workplace organizing in the Post Office. Many activists today still think that AM organizing had no real impact within the Canadian context until the 1990s emergence of the global justice movement, the Zapatistas, and Empire (2000) by Hardt and Negri.

The history of AM organizing has not generally been remembered in histories of Left and feminist organizing, and Huot’s article works against this forgetting. While the history of the Waffle, the Communist Party, and Marxist Leninist and Trotskyist groups has been more recorded and remembered, Huot provides an important work of historical recovery of how AM, some of the acquisitions of the Italian far Left, and the work of C.L.R. James informed organizing in Toronto, Windsor, Winnipeg, Kitchener/Waterloo, and elsewhere.

Central to the development of this approach was what Huot describes as the concrete investigation of the conditions of working class experience and struggle (what can be described as working class ethnography) as the basis for theory building and political practice. Huot contextualizes the concrete practice of struggle in the Post Office within the broader development of the New Tendency, the Struggle Against Work Collective, and the emergence of Wages for Housework. 

This AM current was critical of the party-building approach of the various Leninist groups, aware of the major limitations of unions, and argued for the autonomy of working class struggle and the struggles of the oppressed sections within the working class. Huot writes as an insider and his writing is enriched through his active participation within this network and organizing.
He also makes visible how this experience of organizing is very useful to reflect upon for organizing in the historical present, including: the importance of grounding theory in the struggles of workers and the oppressed; an analysis of the class composition of capital and class struggle; the importance of putting the needs of struggles and movements ahead of unions and organizations; and the significance of grasping power relations within the working class as the basis for a strategy of autonomous and intersecting struggles.
 
I hope this article is just the beginning of the recovery of the history and practice of AM organizing that we see in the pages of UTA.

In solidarity
Gary Kinsman
Toronto, ON