The rise and fall of Autonomia Operaia

Printer-friendly version


The events of the last year have focussed a great deal of attention on the milieu of 'Workers' Autonomy', especially in Italy: in fact it has become a new devil incarnate for the bourgeois press. But events have also shown that the 'autonomous milieu' has lost any motivation to refer itself to the working class. Today people talk about the 'Area of Autonomy' rather than Workers' Autonomy. The milieu has turned into a somewhat grimy froth composed of all kind of petty-bourgeois fringe groups, from students to street theatre performers, from feminists to marginally employed teachers, all of them united in exalting their own 'specificity' and in frantically rejecting the working class as the only revolutionary class of our epoch. Within this swamp, the 'proletarian' autonomists distinguish themselves by taking a harder line on the great political questions of the day: should we use Molotov cocktails for defensive or offensive purposes? Should the P.38, that mythic master-key to communism, be aimed at the legs of the cops, or higher up?

However, within this process of utter degeneration, there has been a reaction by those elements who have held onto a more 'classist' standpoint, an attempt to criticise the more confusionist and interclassist conceptions of the movement. But while we have to encourage these efforts, we also have to warn against the serious danger of these elements thinking that these confusions are simply an incidental loss of direction and that all they have to do is start the whole thing over again.

This article deals essentially with Workers' Autonomy in Italy, since it's there that the movement has really developed. But its conclusions are also applicable to others who are hunting for that new political gadget, 'Autonomy', which now has its partisans all over the place (see for example 'Rupture Avec CPAO', available from Revolution Internationale). In this contribution to the discussion, we have analysed the theoretical bases of Workers' Autonomy, showing how they are founded on a rejection of marxist materialism and how they left the door open to all the degeneration which followed. In its future struggles, the proletariat will rediscover the political content of its genuine class autonomy through a radical critique of the Workers' Autonomy movement and all its errors.


When capitalism entered into its decadent phase, the expressions of working class struggle underwent profound changes. It was no longer possible to wage long drawn-out struggles, sometimes lasting for years, to obtain improvements like the 8-hour day. In a system which no longer had anything to offer, it was no longer possible to obtain real improvements. In the period of decadence workers' struggles are therefore characterised by unforeseen and often extremely violent outbreaks, followed by long periods of apparent calm during which new explosions are building up.

In Italy, it was particularly hard to understand the discontinuous nature of the workers' response to the crisis, precisely because of the extraordinary continuity of the struggles which opened with the 'Hot Autumn' of 1969, carried on in 1970-71 with the 'Rampant Autumn', and ended up with the convulsions of Autumn '72 to March '73 (the FIAT-Mirafiori occupation). In this final period of struggle, the extra-parliamentary groups clearly showed themselves to be the guard-dogs of capital's guard-dogs (i.e. the unions), losing a good deal of the influence which they had acquired in 1969 in the most combative sectors of the class.

"The conventions of 1972-3 were from this point of view the extreme limit for these groups, after which all they could do was simply survive." ( , No. 50, November 1973)

The autonomous factory groups had their origin in the extreme distrust many workers felt towards these groupuscules, but this distrust did not lead to a really political opposition to them. However diverse were the motives of the groups and individuals who made up the autonomous milieu, they all had one point in common: the tendency to put the workers' point-of-view at the centre of their preoccupations. However, it was precisely in its attempt to arrive at a working class conception of political struggle that the autonomous milieu met with its most striking failure. While the great majority of autonomous workers' groups have either disappeared or - even worse - been transformed into empty names, we have seen an incredible development of an 'autonomous movement' which, far from being working class, has one unifying theme: the negation of the working class as the fundamental axis of their concerns.

Feminists and homosexuals, students anxious about the disappearing mirage of a little job in local administration or teaching, 'alternative' artists plunged into crisis because no-one will buy their wares, all of them form a united front to defend their 'specificity', their precious autonomy from the stifling working class domination which reigns in the extra-parliamentary groups (?!!!). Contrary to what is written in the bourgeois press, these marginal movements do not represent the Hundred Flowers of a revolutionary spring: they are simply some of the thousand and one purulent snares of this degenerating society. Over this last year this process of degeneration has reached such a pitch that some of the more 'classist' elements have been forced to distance themselves somewhat from the autonomous movement as a whole and to begin to make a critique of past experiences. Although these attempts are positive, they have profound limitations: what they are actually doing is denouncing only the most criticisable positions of marginalism and offering their own 'classist' alternative as genuine proletarian positions. But at no time have they really questioned the foundations of the 'Area of Autonomy'.

The aim of this article is therefore to settle scores with the theoretical foundations of Autonomy and show how marginalism, even of a 'working class' variety, is not simply its bastard, degenerated offspring, but actually represents its logical and inevitable conclusion. In order to do this we will analyse the theory of the 'crisis of leadership' which is at the root of all the political positions of 'L'Area dell'Autonomia'.

The origins of the 'crisis of leadership': the rejection of marxist economic catastrophism

Although the long period of prosperity at the end of the nineteenth century gave rise to a whole number of theories about a gradual transition from Capitalism to socialism simply by raising the consciousness of the workers, the system's entry into its decadent phase with the first world war was the historic confirmation of the old 'catastrophic' formulations of Marx on the inevitable collapse of the commodity economy. It became clear that there was only one alternative for humanity: revolution or reaction, and that the revolution "is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the proletariat as a whole, may imagine for the moment to be the aim. It is a question of what the proletariat actually is and what it will be compelled to do historically" (Marx and Engels, The Holy Family). This is why, after the defeat of the revolutionary wave of the 1920s and the passing of the Communist International into the counter-revolution, the surviving revolutionary groups continued to defend the marxist principle that "a new revolutionary wave will only come out of a new crisis" (Marx). However, the absence of a proletarian revival after World War II along the lines of Red October - and the period of capitalist 'health' during the reconstruction period dispersed these small fractions, condemning most of them to disappear.

As products of this period came new theories which claimed to have gone beyond the marxist vision of crises; thus the Socialisme ou Barbarie group in France insisted that capitalism had transcended its economic contradictions (note 1). The anti-marxist conclusions of Socialisme ou Barbarie were propagated by a whole series of groups, one of the best known being the Situationist International.

May '68 was the swan-song of this position. The reappearance of the workers' movement onto the scene of history at a time when the economic crisis had not yet fully developed led these unfortunates to believe that the movement had no economic base:

"As for the debris of the old non-Trotskyist that they've recognised that there was a revolutionary crisis in May, they've got to prove that there was an invisible economic crisis in the spring of '68. Without fear of ridicule they've been wheeling out tables about the rise in unemployment and prices". (Internationale Situationniste, No 12, December 1969).

The theoreticians of the 'society of the spectacle' could only see the crisis when it really became spectacular...But marxists have never needed to wait for things to become so obvious that they hit the front pages and penetrate the minds of bourgeois notables before they are able to recognise and greet the imminence and significance of a new crisis. Even though they were a long way from the centres of the capitalist world, a handful of 'ultra-leftist' comrades in Venezuela were able to write in their journal Internacionalismo in January 1968:

"The year 1967 saw the fall of the Pound Sterling and 1968 the measures taken by Johnson...we are not prophets and we do not claim to know how and when events will take place. But we are sure that it is impossible to stop the process which the capitalist system is going through with these reforms and other capitalist remedies, and that this process is leading irremediably to a crisis. Similarly the inverse process, the development of class combativity which is now generally taking place, will lead the proletariat towards a direct and bloody struggle for the destruction of the bourgeois states".

The eruption of the working class onto the historical stage after 1968 made it impossible for the partisans of the 'revolutionary carnival' to speak in the name of the class: in 1970, the SI dissolved itself in an orgy of mutual expulsions. After that, the periodic explosions of revolt which expressed the decomposition of the petty bourgeoisie were unable even to produce another Situationist International. They ended up in nothing but folklore.

Voluntarism in working class colours and the 'crisis of leadership'

The re-emergence of the class onto the scene of history and the disappearance of the Situationists and other contestationists, made it necessary to renew the theory that capitalism could control the crisis, taking the new realities into account. Instead of simply denying the possibility of crisis (how could you do this now?) the active side of the theory was re-evaluated: given that capitalism could control the economic crisis, what had opened the door to a real economic crisis was a crisis in this control itself, caused by the action of the workers (note 2).

This theme, which had already been present in the last texts of the Situationists alongside pastoral poems about the critique of daily life, became axiomatic in the positions of the new social-barbarians, who now saw themselves as 'marxist' and 'working-class'. It is significant that in France the abortive attempt to create on this basis a 'Gauche Marxiste pour le Pouvoir des Conseils des Travailleurs' in 1971, came out of the group Pouvoir Ouvriere, itself a 'marxist' offshoot of Socialisme ou Barbarie.

In Italy these positions were expressed mainly by the group Potere Operaio and we will therefore analyse its ideas (note 3).

The group based itself on the recognition of the omnipotence of the "theoretical brain of capital", experienced manipulator of a society without crises: "after 1929, capital learned how to control the economic cycle, to rid itself of the mechanisms of crisis, to avoid being crushed by them and to use them in a political manner against the working class". They therefore put forward this solution: "The strategic object of the workers' struggle - more money and less work - launched against the development of capital, has verified the theorem we began from ten years ago: the introduction of a new concept of the crisis of capital, no longer a spontaneous economic crisis, caused by internal contradictions, but a political crisis provided by the subjective movements of the working class, by its demand struggles" (note 4).

Having denied that "a new revolutionary wave will only come out of a new crisis", it was still necessary to explain why this subjectivity of the workers had decided to revive in 1968-69 and not, for example, in 1954 or 1982. Their explanation for the origin of this cycle of struggle reveals all of Potere Operaio's incomprehension, or rather ignorance, of the history of the workers' movement.

The defeats of the 1920s, the expulsion and then the extermination of revolutionary comrades by the Communist International when it went over to the counter-revolution - none of this exists for Potere Operaio, since it all took place outside the limits of the factory. For P0 the crucial thing was the introduction of the assembly line, which "de-qualified all workers and pushed back the revolutionary wave". It was only in the 1930s that the historic organisations of the class found themselves "inside the project of capital", and this because they had not understood the restructuring of the productive apparatus which took place on the basis of the economic theories of Keynes. Having posed the question in this way, having rejected the historic experience of the class, there was no point in asking why it was only in 1968 that the workers learned "that a new society and a new life were possible, that a new, free world is being opened up by the struggle". It was enough to reply: "Where are the objective conditions that will enable the subjective political will, once it is organised, to reach the revolutionary goal?" (PO no. 38-39, May 1971). This organisational proposition that PO was making to the advanced workers was based on an absolute distrust for the real autonomy of the working class, which was seen as soft wax in the hands of the Party - which (great consolation this) was "inside the class": "We have always fought against those opportunists who call spontaneity 'spontaneism', instead of admitting their own impotence, their own inability to lead and to bend this spontaneity into an organisational project, into a party leadership." (P0 no. 38-39, p4, our emphasis).

At the centre of P0's contradictions is the fact that, when it talks about the Party as a fraction of the class, it does not mean the organisation which regroups, around a clear programme and thus on a clear political basis, the most conscious elements formed by the workers' struggle, whatever their social origin. It is talking about a layer, a percentage of the class, which from a sociological point-of-view belongs directly to the "mass worker" and is the "mass vanguard in the struggle against work". Against the Bolshevik Lenin, the Menshevik Martov defended the thesis that "every striker is a member of the party". The 'Bolsheviks' of PO have revamped Martov: "Every hard striker is a member of the party". The party is simply a big base committee and its only problem is to achieve the hegemony of the 'mass worker' over the passivity and resistance of certain layers of the class.

In order to revive the workers, you have to hand them a fully worked out organisational plan: "Why has the union still got control of the running of the struggle? Simply because of its organisational superiority. We're dealing with a problem of management. A problem of achieving a minimum of organisation, a way of running the struggle which is credible and acceptable". When you superimpose the party over the combative fractions of the class, it is inevitable that, when this combativity enters a reflux, the party will more and more substitute itself for the class, in a "completely subjective" course towards asceticism and militarism.

Formation of 'L'area dell'autonomia' and dissolution of Potere Operaio

The workers' struggles of autumn '72, ending up with the occupation of FIAT-Mirafiori in March '73, led on the one hand to a loss of credibility of the leftist groupuscules among the workers (and thus to the extension of the autonomous organs) and on the other hand to an internal crisis in PO. The hyper-voluntarist militarist line was criticised, because it theorised that "the military structure was the only one capable of fulfilling a revolutionary role, thereby denying the class struggle and the political role of the workers' committees". (PO no 50, November 1973).

However, this denunciation failed to get to the theoretical roots of this degeneration; it was more a reaffirmation of P0's theses than a critique of them.

What was actually happening was that the old theory was being renewed, in order to explain why the crisis was getting worse in all countries despite the absence of workers' struggles. Before, they had talked about the crisis being provoked by the vanguard. Now they took up the thesis that had a better chance of success: the idea that the crisis had been deliberately provoked by the capitalists. "The capitalists create and eliminate the economic crisis whenever they think it is necessary, always with the aim of smashing the working class ('From Struggle to the Creation of the Autonomous Workers' Organisation' by the Autonomous Assemblies of Alfa-Romeo and Pirelli and the Struggle Committee of Sit-Siemens, May 1973).

Once again, we see a refusal to draw up a balance-sheet of the historic experience of the proletariat. In fact these people boasted about "justifiably laughing at the party-form developed by the Third International". Now, when the working class reflects on its own past, it does not do it in order to laugh or cry but in order to understand, its errors, and, on the basis of this experience, to draw up a class line, a demarcation from the enemy class. The revolutionary proletariat does not 'laugh' at the "outmoded Marxism-Leninism of Stalin" in order to glorify the 'new' Marxism-Leninism of Mao Tse-Tung: it denounces both of them as arms of the counter-revolution. This is precisely what our neo-autonomists did not want to do: "From this point-of-view, we reject any dogmatic (?!) distinction between Leninism and anarchism: our Leninism is that of State and Revolution, and our Marxism-Leninism is that of the Chinese Cultural Revolution" (PO, no. 50, p3)

What, in conclusion, is the role of revolutionaries? "We must be capable of reuniting and organising the strength of the working class, but we must not substitute ourselves for it" (4). This phrase represents the insurmountable limit beyond which Autonomia Operaia has never been capable of going: i.e. condemning as substitutionist only those conceptions according to which the revolution is made by deputies with reforms or by 'militarised' students with Molotov cocktails. In fact substitutionism means any conception which denies the revolutionary nature of the working class, with all that this implies. When you say that the task of revolutionaries is to organise the class, you are denying the capacity of the class to organise itself in relation to all the other classes in society. The workers' councils of the first revolutionary wave were created spontaneously by the proletarian masses: what Lenin did in 1905 was not to organise them but to recognise them and defend the revolutionary positions of the party within them.

If "the organisation, the party, is today founded in the struggle", once the struggle is over how can you justify the survival of this party without falling into substitutionism? The political vanguard, revolutionaries, are not regrouped around this or that struggle but around a political programme. On the basis of this programme, and as products of the struggle, they become an active factor in the struggle; but they neither depend on the ups and downs of the movement, nor try to make up for these ups and downs with their well-intentioned 'organisational' work. The inability to see that the class and the revolutionary organisation are two distinct but not antagonistic realities is at the base of all substitutionist conceptions, all of which end up identifying party and class. If the Leninists identify the class with the party, the autonomists (unconscious descendants of a degenerated councilism) simply reverse things by identifying the party with the class. This inability is the symptom of an incomplete break with the leftist groups, and this is expressed strikingly by the Autonomous Assembly of Alfa-Romeo, which ended up theorising a division of tasks, so that the political groups would carry on the political struggle (i.e. political and civil rights, anti-fascism - in a word the whole arsenal of anti-working class mystifications) while the autonomous organs would get on with the struggle in the factories and offices. All this is logical for those who think that: "the capacity to get Valpreda out of prison by the vote will be a moment in the victorious struggle against the bourgeois state (!)" (Alfa-Romeo, workers' paper of struggle, 1972-73, by the Autonomous Assembly, October 1973).

As we have seen, Autonomia Operaia began on a slightly more confused basis than PO, even though the changing situation demanded much greater clarity. All these proletarian efforts which expressed, in a confused way, a healthy reaction against the miserable practices of the leftists, were and are destined to go round in circles and lose themselves if they remain within this confused framework.

Balance sheet of a defeat

"In Italy the 1973 March days at Mirafiori were the official sanction for going on to the second stage of the movement, just as the days at the State Square were the first phase. Armed struggle, put forward by the proletarian vanguard in the mass movement, is a higher form of workers' struggle...the duty of the party is to develop this new experience of attack in a molecular, generalised and centralized form". (P0 November 1973).

With these words, full of smug illusions in the "formidable continuity" of the Italian movements, P0 announced its own dissolution into the 'area of autonomy' and the imminent centralisation of this area as the "fusion of the subjective will and the capacity to break out of the cycle of struggles dominated by the bosses and unions, in order to impose the initiative of the attack". (PO no. 50, 1973)

As we can see the label has changed but the illusion of altering the direction of the workers' struggle by sheer will is hard to die. Alas for these illusions, Mirafiori 1973 was not the spring-board for an extens ion to a new level of armed struggle but the last shockwave of a movement that was about to enter into a long period of reflux. How are we to explain this interruption in the continuity of the Italian movement? By remembering that it is a typical product of the workers' struggle today, a struggle which takes place in the framework of a decadent capitalism, a system no longer able to ameliorate the living conditions of the workers. In the present period even the crumbs given out during the reconstruction 'boom' after the second world butchery have been taken back; the open economic crisis is making the situation worse and worse.

After the first real collapse of the Italian economy - which happened precisely in 1973 - the already narrow margin of manoeuvre within which the unions could ask for wage rises was squeezed in an even more draconian manner (at this point came the shattering of all lingering illusions about the possibility of a combative trade unionism, independent of the parties, and about the role of the factory councils). More and more often, even long and violent strikes ended up without any of the workers' demands being obtained. In sum, the workers discovered through defeat after defeat that, from now on, defending their living standards meant directly attacking the state, of which the unions were simply a cog. In describing this phase, which despite differing particularities occurred in all the industrialized countries, we have often said that it was as if the working class was retreating in the face of new obstacles, in order to be able~ to take up the fight more effectively later on. These years of apparent passivity were actually a period of subterranean maturation, and only those who believed that this reflux was eternal were likely to be disillusioned. It is true that the difficulty of defending their living conditions can disorientate and demoralise workers, but in the long term it can only hurl them back into the struggle, with a hundred times more anger and determination.

In the face of the reflux, the 'autonomists' had essentially two kinds of answers:

  1. the voluntarist attempt to counterbalance the reflux, through an increasingly frenetic and substitutionist activism.

  2. the gradual displacement of the factory struggle towards other, supposedly 'superior' areas of struggle.

The ambitious project of centralising the 'Area of autonomy', which PO had tried to carry through by setting up a National Coordination, foundered on this gradual differentiation between the 'hardliners' and the 'alternative' elements. These two lines led to the development of the two symmetrical deviations, terrorism and marginalism, which ended up blending together again.

Without trying to make an in-depth analysis of these two 'threads' - which we certainly shall be doing in future - it is still important to show that they are the logical development of their ouvrierist origins, not their negation.

"When the workers' struggle pushes capital into crisis, onto the defensive, the workers' organisation must already have solid, technically prepared instruments (our emphasis) for extending, strengthening and pushing forward the class' will to attack...stirring up, organising the uninterrupted revolution against work, determining and living through sudden moments of liberation ... Such is the task of the workers' vanguard. This is our conception of the dictatorship." (4)

As we have already seen, P0 is clearly defending the positions which form the basis of the terrorist 'line'.

  1. On the one hand, the idea of the crisis being imposed by the class struggle.

  2. On the other hand, the conception of revolutionaries as technical organisers of the class struggle; this is why they had to "arrive at a certain type of organisation" in order to be credible to the working class and to be able to rival the unions for the 'management' of the struggle.

As the post '68 wave of struggle ebbed away, a good technician of guerrilla warfare in the factories had to know more and more 'tricks' in order to lead his workmates towards the promised land. Thus was born the mystique of the 'workers' inquiry'; this meant the vanguard making a study of 'the structure of the factory and the productive cycle in order to discover their weak points. All you had to do was touch these weak points and you could block the whole cycle and screw up the bosses. But, as usual, what was good about this was not new, and what was new wasn't any good. The idea of hitting' without warning, at a moment that is most prejudicial to the bosses and involves the least trouble for the workers, is not really an idea at all. It is a practical discovery by the class and has a precise name: wildcat strike. What is new here is the idea (and yes, this is just an idea) that wildcat strikes can be programmed by the vanguard. This is a contradiction in terms.

It could be said in response that this is true, but if you do not know the factory, you can not unite the struggle of different sectors, you'll get lost, etc... Very true, but it is hardly the case that, for example, paint shop workers learn to go to the body plant or the press shop thanks to nocturnal studies by a few militants. It is in the course of its struggle that the class finds the practical solution to the problem of gates and railings: knocking them down.

This point, which seems to be a secondary one, shows clearly that this technico-military conception is looking at the class struggle from the wrong angle. The unification of the struggle does not come about because in each shop there are comrades with a plan of the factory imprinted in their brains. It is the necessity to get out of the blind alleys of sectoral struggles which compels the class to go beyond the obstacles which stand in the way of the unification of the struggle. When the workers go en masse to call out the workers of other factories, the fundamental thing is not knowing where the exit is, but the understanding that only the generalisation of the struggle can lead to victory. In reality, the most formidable obstacles are not gates and railings, but the obstacles inside the class, the bourgeois demagogy which gets in the way of the maturation of class consciousness. The real wall to be broken down is the one built day after day by the union delegates, by the activists of the 'workers' parties and groupuscules. It is the invisible but solid wall which encloses the proletariat inside the 'Italian people' and separates it from its class brothers all over the world. It is the chain which ties the class to the needs of an ailing national economy. Unmasking the demagogic and extremist disguises of these obstacles, denouncing their counter-revolutionary nature - this is the specific role of revolutionaries inside and outside the factory, this is their indispensable contribution to the forging of class consciousness and unity that will knock down a lot more walls than the ones around FIAT (it is clear that this has nothing in common with the idea that revolutionaries are the 'advisors' of the class, since in order to carry out these tasks they have to have an active function in the proletarian movement).

Today it is a commonplace to see criticisms of the Red Brigades in the publications of Workers' Autonomy; the Red Brigades 'exaggerate' their militarism, they are cut off from the masses, etc... But the Red Brigades have simply gone to the logical extremes of voluntarism in the impossible attempt to answer the new difficulties faced by the class movement with a 'qualitative leap' by the vanguard. It is certainly no accident that the criticisms of the Red Brigades by Workers' Autonomy have never gone beyond their habitual opportunist lamentations about the premature character of certain actions. The fact that these criticisms never reach the essential questions has its roots in the very theories of Workers' Autonomy:

"A 'classical' insurrectional theory is no longer applicable in the capitalist metropoles. It has shown itself to be outmoded, like the interpretation of the crisis in terms of the economic collapse...armed struggle corresponds to the new form of crisis imposed by workers' autonomy just as the insurrection was the logical conclusion of the old theory of the crisis as an economic collapse". (PO March 1973).

You can not reject marxist in the name of the subjective will of the masses, and then seriously try to criticize those who, having proclaimed themselves to be the 'fighting party', try to accelerate the course of history by bringing a bit of their own 'will' to the masses. The militarism of the Red Brigades is simply a coherent and logical development of the ouvrierist activism of the much-vaunted 'workers' inquiries'.

It remains only to be said that, in recent months, all this coherence and foresight has not stopped the Red Brigades from pursuing through communiqués and appeals those youngsters seduced by the 'party of the P.38', but also, having gone over to armed struggle, have not felt the need to enter the Red Brigades. Some might talk about apprentice sorcerers who cannot control the forces they have so imprudently unleashed. But nothing could be more wrong: this inability to control the metropolitan pistoleros is blinding proof that all this is not due to the 'exemplary action' of the Red Brigades, but to the inexorable advance of the economic crisis, which is throwing broad layers of the petty bourgeoisie into the depths of despair.

The 'iron detachments of the armed party', the 'wild dogs' of the P.38 can not impose anything, for good or ill. It is the logic of facts which has imposed itself on them, and the same logic will sweep them aside.

Marginalism - outside the class struggle, outside history

While the 'hardliners' were militarising themselves in order to substitute themselves for the reflux in the movement in the factories, the main part of the autonomous movement went off looking for other, more practical roads to communism. No sooner said than done: the movement is not really in reflux - it is about to attack on another flank, in order to disorientate the bosses! And so we come to that magic place, the 'territory', the 'new dimension of Workers' Autonomy'. In fact, the displacement of the struggle onto the 'social level' in no way led to the expansion of the workers' initiative from the factory to the territory. The struggle against price rises, rents, neighbourhood struggles in general, could only be based on the whole population of the neighbourhoods. A 'self reduction' of electricity payments put forward by workers' families alone would be an absurdity, and would get nowhere. Far from extending the autonomy of the working class, this movement could only drown the class in the petty bourgeoisie and the population in general. This much-vaunted 'generalisation of the struggles' was actually the transformation of the workers' struggle in defence of their material conditions into a citizens' struggle for 'rights'.

The historic reality of explosions of proletarian struggle is quite different: they do not immerse themselves in popular, inter-classist committees. The proletariat, through its own internal class dynamic, finds in crucial moments of struggle the strength to go beyond the suffocating limits of the factory, to show the bosses and their lackeys a picture of the future, when there will be no 'return to order'. Petrograd 1917, Poland 1970, Britain 1972, Spain 1976, Egypt 1977: it is always in the big working class concentrations that we see the unification of the collective body of the proletariat and the splitting-up of the 'united people' into two distinct and antagonistic camps. The logic of the various 'autonomous' movements, however, was the progressive dilution of the factory struggle into petty bourgeois and marginal struggles.

From the territory as the 'area of recomposition of Workers' Autonomy' to the young proletarian circles, from workers' power to the 'metropolitan Indians': the trajectory is well-known. Each layer of the petty bourgeoisie thrown into turmoil by the crisis suddenly became a 'fraction of the class' and began waving the flag of its own 'autonomy'. We will just look at one example: feminism. In Italy, the 'mass development' of feminism, as with all the marginal movements, was linked to the 'crisis of the (leftist) groups', to the disappointment brought about by the reflux in the class struggle. All of a sudden communism was no longer going to descend like the holy spirit onto the foreheads of the workers of FIAT-Mirafiori.

Like all idealist conceptions, feminism believes that ideologies determine existence and not the other way round. That is why it thinks it is enough to negate, to refute imposed roles, and that this will throw bourgeois society into crisis. When you try to apply this to the class struggle, it gives rise to a false interpretation (for example: it is the refusal to work which brings about the crisis) which can easily become a purely reactionary ideology. We thus end up with each 'oppressed' stratum in society affirming its own autonomy, in order to challenge the 'capitalist leadership' of society.

It is no accident that the 'new way of making politics' discovered by the feminists mainly consists of small 'consciousness-raising' groups!! It is the destiny of each 'category' of bourgeois society (blacks, women, youth, homosexuals, etc.) to be totally powerless in the face of history, to be totally incapable of developing a historical consciousness. They can only end up taking refuge in the secure 'self-consciousness' of their own misery. If the proletariat is the revolutionary class of our epoch, it is not because it has been convinced of this by socialists and has got used to the idea, but because of its practical situation at the centre of capitalist production.

"If the socialist writers attribute this historic role to the proletariat, it is not because, as Critical Criticism claims, we see the proletarians as gods. On the is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the proletariat as a whole, may imagine for the moment to be the aim. It is a question of what the proletariat actually is and what it will be compelled to do historically." (Marx and Engels, The Holy Family).

The fact that women are not a social stratum capable of waging a class struggle is due to the fact that they are neither a class nor a fraction of a class, but simply one of many categories which capital opposes one against the other (races, sexes, nations, religions) in order to dilute the central contradiction which only the proletariat can resolve:

"(the proletariat) cannot liberate itself without suppressing its own conditions of existence. It cannot suppress its own conditions of existence without suppressing all inhuman conditions of existence of the present society." (Marx and Engels, The Holy Family).

Precisely because it addresses itself to women, i.e. to a category which the crisis will inevitably split along class lines, feminism has shown itself to be a second-rate mystification as far as capital is concerned. It is incapable of derailing large numbers of workers from the class struggle. In order to have some sort of use, feminism has to get shuffled into the pack of capitalist mystifications whose trump card is the 'left-wing, popular alternative', the only mystification that can really derail the proletariat today.

The future of all these marginal movements has already been decided. During the first world butchery, the English Suffragettes suspended all agitation and responded enthusiastically to the appeals of the bourgeois state to safeguard the higher interests of the nation. Thus they volunteered to do the work of the men who had been sent to the front. A no less repulsive role will be reserved for the modern suffragettes of capital.

Understand right away and begin again: but begin what?

The events of recent months have shown that the danger of not taking your critique to the roots is not something that we have invented. In a text distributed in Milan and called significantly 'Understand Right Away and Begin Again', it says:

"If anyone had illusions about the 'immediate' and 'linear' character of the confrontation, all that is finished today. Many sectors of the class movement were thrown into the struggle when they were still raw and full of 'insurrectionary' illusions, and with sudden, spontaneous forms of struggle that were incapable of posing the real problem of the confrontation. The structure of the state is not going to be instantly swept away, as if it were just a ghost. The masses - comrades! - do not mobilise themselves overnight at the stroke of a magic wand." (our emphasis. Leaflet signed by various workers' committees and Maoist committees)

Facts are stubborn, as Marx said, and the realisation of this situation - like the realisation that the leftist groups are the guard-dogs of democratic legality - is beginning to impose itself within the movement. But the danger is the illusion that you can understand everything straight away, and begin again tomorrow morning. "The weight of dead generations lies like a nightmare on the minds of the living". It is not enough just to recognise that certain errors have been made. Only through a radical critique of their own past will the healthier elements of Workers' Autonomy be able to free their hearts and minds of the obsessive spirit of ouvrierism.

When discussing with militants of Workers' Autonomy, one always ends up at the same point: "That's true, you're right, but what can we do now?" Comrades, the ambiguity immediately disappears if, as part of the vanguard, you take up all your responsibilities to the class. And this can only be done with a clear programme and a militant organisation. But a programme is not a trade union platform put forward as an alternative to this years' 'social contract'. It is a political platform which clearly marks out the class frontiers established by the historical experience of the proletariat. Understand right away? But for a long time, Workers' Autonomy supported 'Red' China, the struggle of the anti-imperialist peoples, etc...And now that China has been unmasked, now that terror reigns in 'liberated' Cambodia, how does Workers' Autonomy react? Quite simply - it just doesn't talk about these things. Comrades, if you do not understand these things, if you do not manage to integrate all these 'mysterious' facts into a coherent set of class positions - on state capitalism, national liberation struggles, the 'socialist' countries, etc. - you are building on sand and you are deceiving the proletariat.

Our aim is not to quote the classics and pontificate. It is to work tenaciously at what is today the fundamental task of revolutionaries: international regroupment to prepare the decisive struggles of the future. Carrying out such a task does not mean chasing militants to strengthen our ranks. It means making our own contribution in an organised, militant way, and stimulating the still confused and hesitant process of clarification taking place in the class movement. It is this clarification which will strengthen the ranks of the revolutionary minority. We ,have no short-cuts to offer: they do not exist. Anyone who believes that you can trade-in a co-ordination of base committees for a revolutionary party had better think again. Too much time has already been wasted.



  1. A split from Trotskyism in the 1950s. Back

  2. For an analysis of the marxist interpretation of the crisis, see our pamphlet The Decadence of Capitalism. Back

  3. We are not saying that Potere Operaio is a direct descendant of Socialisme ou Barbarie. But what is interesting is the fact that the positions which the militants and sympathizers of P0 always understood to be the product of the reawakening class struggle, are simply an ouvrierist version of the old degenerating positions which flourished on the defeat of the working class. However, we should remember that PO was the only Italian group to express, even if it was in a very confused way, the reawakening of the workers' struggle. Its unfortunate end should not make us forget that other groups ended up in parliament. Back

  4. The quotes are taken from the pamphlet Alle avanguardie per il Partito, written by the national secretariat of P0 in December 1970. Back


Political currents and reference: