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Autonomism and the fight for change

This article is over 12 years, 10 months old
The first of Estelle Cooch's new series looks at the ideas of anarchism and autonomism
Issue 2246

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.

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.

Anarchism’s open rejection of authority is appealing and lays the basis for many of its similarities with Marxism.

Britain, unlike other parts of Europe, has never had large numbers of people in anarchist groups.

However, the student movement and the emergence of groups such as UK Uncut in the anti-cuts movement have prompted important political questions about organisation and tactics.

Many activists now call themselves “autonomists”, and more are influenced by autonomist ideas.

Autonomism shares many of the characteristics of anarchism. Its main idea is a rejection of organisation. It believes small, imaginative groups of radicals should act on behalf of the masses.

It says the creation of “autonomous” spaces like occupations allows us to carve out alternative societies within the system.

Usually, differences between Marxism and autonomism rest on three points: leadership, political parties and the state.

When it comes to leadership, autonomists reject the “leadership” of capitalist society, where the wealthiest Eton toffs are in charge. So do we.

And they are also right that the “leadership” offered by trade union and labour leaders is not always a pretty picture. When union officials leave behind the drudgery of everyday work, they can lose touch with those they represent.

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.

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.

This can work sometimes—but often it is less democratic than it appears. A tiny minority with time on its hands can block a decision backed by the vast majority. Votes, by contrast, bind people to decisions, making them more accountable.

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.

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.

Socialists stand side by side with autonomists in united fronts, in working class struggles and in front of police lines .

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.


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