Autonomism – Cutting the Ground from under Marxism

Follow up article: Autonomism – “Many Flowers Little Fruit” – A Response to our Critics.


Over the years we have had contact with a number of groups who have been influenced by the ideas of Italian Autonomists in their various forms. Whilst we have points of agreement with them and sometimes find they produce good analyses we have often found it difficult to engage with them especially since attempts to discuss political issues are dismissed as irrelevant because they are mere “ideology”. For them the terra firma of the workplace is all that matters. The following article is an attempt to get to grips with some of the ideas behind these groups which have influenced the political and organisational direction of some of the class struggle organisations that have arisen in recent years.

Autonomism, in which we include Workerism(1), developed as an outcome of Italian workers' struggles in the period from the early 60s to the late 70s; the high point being the struggles of the “hot autumn” in 1969. It was always a heterogeneous movement which attempted to correct or update what it saw as the failings of traditional Marxism. Traditional Marxism, as they understood it, was Stalinism and many began to question what claimed to be Marxism after 1956 when the Hungarian Revolt and Khruschev’s speech to the CPSU XXth Party Congress exposed some of Stalin’s crimes. The movement consisted essentially of intellectuals who had emerged from the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), together with militants and students grouped round journals and other publications. Gradually they came to the view that Marx’s analysis needed to be either re-focussed or extended to explain the current situation of class composition and class struggle. The movement had a mass following and intervened extensively in both the workers’ struggles and social struggles but never formed a political organisation. This was despite the fact that it was a movement which began by rejecting the modus operandi of the existing leftist political parties and unions, in particular the PCI and the PSI. Many militants argued against “Leninist” forms of organisation (by which they meant the top-down structure of the existing left political parties) and for organisation to be rooted in factories and neighbourhoods promoting struggles managed directly by those involved. However, its leading theoreticians always had an ambivalent attitude to organisation and to established leftist parties, which they supposedly opposed. Key figures remained members or returned to both the PCI(2) and the PSI(3) and even argued for continuing to work inside the PCI.(4)

Certain sections of the movement also advocated the armed struggle of the working class and saw in the guerrilla movements of Latin America (like the Tupamaros in Uruguay) something of a model. This led the state to falsely accuse the Autonomists of that time of being the ideological support for the terrorist Red Brigades (Brigate Rosse) in the so-called “anni di piombo” (years of lead). As a result it was targeted and smashed by state repression in the late 70s with thousands of militants and its main theoreticians imprisoned and hundreds fleeing Italy.(5)

However, some of the leading intellectuals continued theoretical work after the crushing of the movement and attempted to develop the themes of the earlier period and relate them to the developments of the 80s and 90s and in particular the global situation following the collapse of the Russian bloc. A lot of these later writings, particularly those of Antonio Negri, are based on a denial of the defeats which Italian (and other) workers suffered from 1980 onwards and a denial of the theoretical failures of Autonomism. Negri’s later work represents an attempt to fuse Autonomism with postmodernism, a theory which became popular amongst university intellectuals in the 80s. In so doing he made a break with the Autonomism of the 60s and 70s for which he has been criticised by theorists of the earlier period.(6) However, this later work bases itself on many of the fundamental theoretical positions of the earlier period. The break with key aspects of Marxism is contained in the theory of the earlier period as we aim to show in what follows.

However, the Autonomist description of the changes in contemporary capitalism and the changed structure of the working class is largely correct. This has led to parts of Autonomist theoretical analysis, and some of the solutions they proposed, being taken up by some of the new struggle organisations(7) which have emerged in the present period. Some of their analyses have also found their way into the theory of movements like the “communisation” tendency, libertarian communism and even the writing of popular leftist journalists such as Paul Mason.(8)

The key change in capitalism’s structure over the last 3 decades has been the globalisation of production and mobility of capital worldwide.(9) This has led to the relocation of much of global industrial production to the peripheral countries where capital finds cheaper labour, while in the central capitalist countries the economies have become predominantly service producing. Most work done in the central economies does not produce material commodities and is described, by Autonomist theory, as immaterial production.(10) This has led to changes in the structure of the working class. In peripheral countries the proletariat had become massive and composed largely of first generation workers formed from ruined peasantry. In the central countries, on which Autonomism concentrates its focus, the changes have been equally dramatic. Workers have gone from previously stable labouring occupations to precarious employment. Part time working, casual work, non-guaranteed work such as zero hours work, outsourcing, freelance, home working, and continual monitoring of workers’ activities and output by computers, have all become ever more common. In the UK this has led to arrangements like the gig economy where workers are treated as self-employed freelance agents accepting contracts and therefore without any traditional employment rights, such as rights to holidays, healthcare, pensions, maternity leave and so on. At the same time the social wage, for those who are still eligible for these benefits, has been savagely cut. The result has been a general reduction of wages which has accelerated since the financial crisis to 2008. The question is how to struggle against all this.

Autonomism argues that the working class is autonomous from capital and favours direct action to oppose capitalism. This can take many forms but the present street battles of the “black bloc” are a legacy of the Autonomist practice of “social antagonism”. However, the problem for Autonomists has always been, and still remains, giving this claimed autonomy a political direction. Autonomist theorists considered a centralised political party an anachronism that belonged to a bygone era. Antonio Negri and other theorists of Autonomism turned to the example of the revolutionary syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) as a model for organisation in the future.(11) They argued that a structure organised from below and organised horizontally could unite industrial struggles with social struggles. It could allow liberation to grow in the process of struggle and could create a form of workers' power. Although this was not put into practice by the Autonomist movement itself, this idea and other elements of the Autonomist theory have found an echo in the UK.

In the period since the financial crisis of 2008 the failure of the established trade unions to protect workers in the precarious sector has been so blatant that there has been a revival of alternative rank and file unions. This has seen a revival of the IWW and renewed interest in the factory organisations which arose in Germany in the period after World War One, the AAUD-E(12), which were the general workers' union unitary organisations. These organisations were formed in factories and called unitary organisations because they dissolved the political organisation into the factory organisation and hence dispensed for the need for a party. In the decade since the financial crisis there has been a growth in the presence of the IWW in the UK as well as a number of derivative unions such as the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB), United Voices of the World (UVW) and the Cleaners and Allied Independent Workers Union (CAIWU). These unions represent a UK version of the rank and file unions, or Cobas(13) which arose in Italy in the 80s in opposition to official unions. With all this has come a renewed interest in Autonomism and the concept of horizontal networks of struggle and the idea that a political organisation, or party, would arise out of the struggle itself. What is not properly understood is that the fashionable aspects of Autonomism which are being taken up again today are based on a rejection of key aspects of Marx’s analysis of capitalism. One cannot remove key aspects of this analysis, as the Autonomists do, without undermining the whole structure of Marxism and this has political consequences which are not being faced.

In what follows we intend to:

  1. Look critically at four of the key theoretical ideas of Autonomist movement of the 60s and 70s.
  2. Consider the extension of these ideas in the work of the theoreticians who survived the defeat of the movement.
  3. Look again at the question of political organisation.

Is the Working Class Autonomous and Determining Capitalist Development?

Mario Tronti, one of the most important early theorists of Autonomism, argued that there were two sides to Marxism. The first was Marxism as a science. This analysed labour power and capital and their interaction while assuming workers are integrated into the capitalist production process. The second side was Marxism as a revolutionary theory. This saw the working class as revolutionary since it refused to be integrated into capital relations. What this division fails to understand is that the two sides are intimately connected and revisions of economic theory necessarily entail political consequences. Autonomist theorists were, however, influenced by the massive class struggles going on around them and tailored their analysis to suit what they saw before their eyes. In the 60s and 70s workers in Italy (and not just there) were refusing union negotiated contracts, striking, not bothering to turn up for work, sabotaging machinery and so on. This led Tronti and others to see the working class as refusing to be integrated into capitalist relations. They placed great stress on what they called a refusal of work and argued this made the working class autonomous of capital. At a more general level, they argued the working class was autonomous because, while capital needed labour, labour did not need capital. They claimed the second side of Marxism determined capitalist development. Living labour not capital determines capitalist development. Autonomists described this as an inversion of traditional Marxism or the Copernican discovery of Autonomism.

Marx however saw the development of capital as determined by objective developments within the system itself. Capital appears as an autonomous force independent of the will and actions of humans. The system is not under anyone’s control but determined by such forces as the law of value and the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Autonomist theorists, however, see the subjective human forces that struggle against capital’s hegemony as determining the development of the system. They claim, for example, that the restructuring of industry which took place in the 70s is empirical evidence of the truth of this contention. Restructuring was, they assert, a capitalist counter-offensive to workers’ struggles which exemplified the general thesis that capital attempts to contain labour but is itself contained and determined by labour.

In terms of the capitalist system, Autonomism claims that wages are the independent variable upon which all the other variables in the system depend.(14)

A lot of questions arise from this. Is labour, in fact, autonomous in the way it is claimed? It is one thing to act outside trade unions and political parties but quite another to be autonomous from capital. Negri claims the working class refuses capitalist valorisation and instead self-valorised itself.(15) What does this mean? If it means labour is independent of the wage this is clearly untrue. Labour needs the wage to survive and will do as long as capitalism exists. A later autonomist writer, Nick Witheford(16), says that labour is only “potentially” autonomous because it can dispense with the wage relation. This is to say labour can become autonomous of capital after the abolition of capitalist relations of production which is so obvious it’s hardly worth saying. But in saying this he is admitting that labour is not autonomous of capital under capitalism. Labour can only survive without the wage while the social wage exists and the social wage can only exist while workers in work are taxed to provide it. The working class is not therefore autonomous of capital.

The question of refusal of work on which the Autonomists, and their legatees in the communisation and anarchist milieu, place such emphasis, is also tied up with the existence of the social wage. While absenteeism and sabotage express resistance to capitalism, such resistance does not make those who resist autonomous. It is essentially a negative reaction while those who practice these things remain within the boundaries of capitalism supported by wage labour even if it is not their own.

Another issue which undermines the idea of autonomy is the attitude Autonomists have adopted to nationalist struggles. The movement joined many of the leftist struggles of the 60s and 70s including support for the Vietnamese NLF, while the publication “Potere Operaio” in the 70s called for victory for the PLO, ETA, and IRA.(17) This indicates that the movement, or sections of it, did not actually think that the working class as a whole was autonomous or even should be autonomous. Any support for nationalism subjects the autonomy of working class to that of the national bourgeoisie.(18) It is the actual denial of autonomy in practice.

The idea that the wage is the independent variable determining all other variables in capitalism, which is a key economic premise in Autonomist theory, is in direct contradiction to what Marx argued in Capital Volume 1. Marx writes:

To put it mathematically: the rate of accumulation is the independent, not the dependent variable; the rate of wages, the dependent, not the independent, variable.(19)

Marx could, of course, be wrong but we do not think so. Capitalist production depends on production of profit and because of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, this entails continual accumulation of capital. The working class is always fighting a rearguard action against the effects of accumulation which entail layoffs, speed-ups or restructuring of production. When capital is restructured the working class is also restructured. The empirical examples of capital responding to workers’ struggles, which Autonomists provide(20), are invalid when capitalist development is looked at in the longer term. The heavy defeats of the 80s preceded much of the restructuring of the system which has occurred in the last 3 decades. The restructuring of Fiat, for example, was preceded by a 35 day strike in the autumn of 1980 which was defeated. This defeat opened the way for mass layoffs and changes in production methods. In the UK, rationalisation of the steel and coal industries were each preceded by bitter strikes provoked by the bourgeois state in order to outflank class resistance. Once the strikes were defeated rationalisation took place. A further example in the UK is the digitisation of the newspaper industry which was preceded by the defeat of a 54 week strike by printers at Wapping in 1986. The digitisation could only be implemented after the defeat of the print workers. Generally, the defeat of a whole series of struggles of the 70s and 80s preceded the globalisation of production and the transformation of the economies of the central capitalist countries into largely service economies. Global industry has been restructured introducing computer control, instant communication, use of robots, etc., following an era of defeated workers’ struggles. This has not occurred in response to global struggles, the refusal of work, absenteeism, sabotage or whatever else the Autonomists claim. The changes themselves have been primarily in response to falling profitability of capital which provokes the drive to increase production of surplus value, not struggles of workers resisting this drive.

However, to properly understand the development of capitalism it is necessary to look at the system as a whole. There is, as Marx maintains, a struggle between the forces of production and the relations of production. The development of the forces of production proceeds in response to the structural contradictions of the system, in particular the falling rate of profit. This is the objective side. The struggles of the working class are part of the struggle within the relations of production, a struggle to resist exploitation. These struggles could be characterised as the subjective side. Capitalist development depends on a dialectic relation between these two sides. Autonomism sees only the subjective side as determinant and consequently Autonomist theorists of the 80s are in complete denial of the defeats of this period. This is a consequence of an idealist analysis which leads to a distorted view of reality.

The most important consequence of this is their abandonment of Marx’s Labour Theory of Value (LTV).

Labour Theory of Value Rejected

By maintaining the working class is autonomous from capital and a key attribute of this is the refusal both of work and integration into capitalism, Autonomist theorists need to explain the continued survival of the capitalist system. Their explanation is that value is also produced outside the labour process and that capital manages to appropriate this value through the action of the state. Mario Tronti argued that labour power produced surplus value before the labour process took place, this was the idea of the so-called “social factory”. Antonio Negri extended this idea until he concluded that virtually every human activity produced value. Capital had, he argued, extended the factory until all of society became one big factory, value was produced everywhere and the state was the boss. Therefore, reproduction of labour power, procreation and bringing up children, education, training, recreation, prostitution, all become producers of value.

Autonomist theory argues that it corresponds to the change in capital’s regime of exploitation, namely the change from formal to real subsumption of labour. Subsumption designates the degree to which labour is integrated into capital’s process of value extraction. Real subsumption would describe economies where the wage form is universal and where scale, cooperation, communication, monitoring of workers and organisation of work serve to maximise value extraction. However, the Autonomists extend the idea beyond the workplace to society as a whole. All are exploited and exploitation can no longer be measured by time at work since it occurs continuously over 24 hours. Negri writes:

Capital has insinuated itself everywhere, and everywhere attempts to acquire the power to coordinate, commandeer and recuperate value.(21)

One consequence of this is that the distinction between productive and unproductive labour disappears. All labour produces value at all times. Negri argued there has been a change from the “mass worker” of the post war period to the “social worker,” the latter included the unemployed, housewives, students, prostitutes, peasantry, etc. All social activity therefore becomes a source of economic surplus. The class battles of the late 60s, according to Negri, had disrupted the functioning of the law of value.(22)

Autonomists understood that their theories meant that the Law of Value was obsolete. They argued that it was necessary to go beyond Marx and create a new theory of value in order to understand the new situation. In this new situation the state had absorbed civil society and relations of production were enforced by law. Whilst it is true that the state has increasingly played a much greater role in the management and survival of capitalism over the last century than it did in the time of Marx, this has not solved or altered any of the key contradictions of the system. The continual reappearance of economic crises is alone proof of this.

Autonomist claims for this major break with a key element in Marxism thus appear to be simply based on assertions drawn from observation of events in Italy in the period of 1963 to 1980, and are asserted without any attempt at proof. The most important claim, from which a lot of the above follows, is that surplus value is produced outside the labour process. This needs to be theoretically proven if it is to be taken seriously, but it remains unproven. It is based on the misunderstanding that general domination, which most people in capitalist society suffer, is the same as exploitation, which the working class suffers during the production process. As an assertion it is undermined empirically by the fact that capital consistently attempts to increase the length of the working day or the intensity of work during working hours and always has done so. If exploitation is continuous over 24 hours there would be no reason for capital to do this. The claim that Marx’s value theory cannot explain the present and needs to be revised is baseless. Similarly the idea of the social factory is baseless.

If all activity produces value and the distinction between productive and unproductive labour vanishes so does the class analysis of society. Valorisation of capital is no longer the result of material production by the productive working class, and their ability to disrupt the system by withdrawing its labour also vanishes. The materialist understanding that the working class is the agent of revolution, because of its position in the production process as an exploited class, has been abandoned. The struggle for communism, therefore becomes a moral struggle, a utopian struggle. It loses its material base which Marx and Engels were at such pains to establish.

The assertion that the state has absorbed civil society and class relations are now enforced by the state is a further example of the consequence of Autonomism’s idealist method. It inverts Marx’s materialist view that the state is an emanation of civil society and is a return to Hegel’s view that civil society and law were expressions of the state. Again, Autonomists make no attempt to prove these assertions. In Marx’s view relations of production form the basis of civil society and the state is an expression of these relations. While the state is obviously the agent of the dominant class it is unable to control the contradictions within the system, particularly the falling rate of profit, even if it takes over society’s entire capital as the crisis and collapse of the command economies of the former fully integral state capitalist regimes, like Russia, illustrate.

The confusion about Marx’s value theory points to a general lack of rigour in economic analysis. It is not therefore surprising to find Autonomist explanations of capitalism’s tendency to crisis are equally confused.

Contradictory Crisis Theory

Marx argues in Capital Volume 3 that the lack of surplus value produces the tendency to crisis. The shortage of surplus value springs from the tendential fall in the rate of profit. Autonomists produce two contradictory explanations of crisis. True to their subjectivist method, they argue that wage struggles are the motor force which causes the rate of profit to fall.(23) This is the familiar “profit squeeze” theory which claims the problem for capitalism is that workers’ consumption is too high thereby depressing profits. On the other hand they take up Rosa Luxemburg’s theory of imperialism that capitalism is unable to realise all the surplus value produced within the system itself.(24) To realise the capital required for accumulation, non-capitalist markets are required. Imperialism is the struggle for division of these markets and their resources. This theory boils down to the view that workers’ consumption is too low and supports the thesis that the post war recovery was based on high wages which the Fordist organisation of mass production created. Hence the explanation of the crisis is that on the one hand workers’ consumption is too high, while on the other it is too low. No attempt is made to reconcile these two contradictory explanations.

In reality a general fall in the rate of profit occurs irrespective of whether the class struggle is intense or non-existent(25) which belies the first explanation. The idea that all the surplus destined for accumulation could be consumed and thus realised in non-capitalist countries and their markets is today so absurd it is not worth seriously considering. The higher wages of the post war period were not a clever policy of a cunning Keynesian bourgeois class. Capital will always attempt to keep wages to a minimum no matter in what period of history it operates. The higher wages of the post war period were the result of higher rates of profit which in turn were based on the expansion of the system after the destruction of constant capital and the consequent decrease in the organic ratio of capital which had been brought about by World War Two.

Political Organisation

Sergio Bologna(26), one of the most important early theorists of Autonomism, in his review(27) of Steve Wright’s book “Storming Heaven” sums up the key organisational weakness of the Autonomist movement as follows:

The Italian operaisti (autonomists - CWO) aimed to be neither ‘class vanguard’ nor political class or ‘small party’ and thus experienced to the bitter end the contradictions of exercising political theory while simultaneously refusing traditional models of organisation.

The movement never aimed to be a vanguard or a party and therefore never formed an organisation or agreed a political platform or even an agreed a critique of bourgeois leftist parties such as the PCI or the PSI. This ensured its political nature remained heterogeneous and allowed intellectuals to put forward different political positions and go in different directions. The lack of clarity on political organisation must also be seen as the most significant factor leading to the movement’s demise.

The Autonomist writers did, of course, try to justify their stance on organisation theoretically on the basis of the other positions we have considered above. Negri, for example, argued that since command by the state had replaced the law of value as the means of dominating the working class, and because of the class’ refusal of work made it autonomous from capital, the working class no longer needed direction given by a so-called “Leninist” party. A further argument, which Negri makes, is based on the issue of the supposed passage from formal to real subsumption of labour which we considered above. A “Leninist” party, he claims, belongs to the period of formal subsumption of labour and is, therefore, an anachronism, a distraction in the present period because the structure of social production has changed. It was not needed as director of a passage to socialism since real subsumption made immediate appropriation of accumulated wealth and workers’ power possible. It was not needed for stimulating mass consciousness of the need for communism and projecting a programme for achieving it. The change in the regime of exploitation meant that consciousness was insinuated into working class by reality without the mediation of a party. Real subsumption had simply made the party irrelevant.

Negri’s views were, however, changeable. They altered with the development of the Italian workers' struggles and after the Fiat Mirafiori occupation in 1973, he appeared to revert to a position where a party of some sort was necessary but concluded the party would emerge from the struggle. He saw the IWW as a model for a future organisation as we have already mentioned. We note, however, that the massive Italian class struggles of 1969 and 1973 did not generate a party as he now expected. Rather they died down without leaving any organisational remains.

If a new organisation was required or could be generated from the struggle itself, why did so many of the theoretical leaders remain in the PCI or the PSI? According to Sergio Bologna(28) this was to produce a political shift in the workers' movement which, he says, consisted primarily of the trade union confederation CGIL(29), the PSI and the PCI. This demonstrates that the Autonomist movement did not regard these organisations as arms of capital and therefore enemies of any attempt to overthrow capitalist relations. Despite the theoretically autonomous struggles of workers, specifically against these organisations when they tried to enforce capitalist discipline and wage contracts, the theoreticians of the movement still regarded them as essentially working class organisations which only needed reform. Their critique was confined simply to the party “form” and not to the class nature of the existing parties which defines that form. No surprise then that the likes of Tronti could return to the leadership of Berlinguer’s PCI in the 1980s, and is today a Senator of the Italian Republic for the Democratic Party (PD – successor to the PCI and currently in power).

We can agree with those Autonomists (particularly of the operaisti wing) that a proletarian revolutionary party has to be built from the bottom up, from the class itself (otherwise it is not a proletarian party) but the key question is how this is to be done and it is a real problem for revolutionaries. Assuming this will arise automatically out of a billion economic struggles is an easy way to avoid the issue but this cannot be the complete answer to how class consciousness develops. By definition class consciousness is uneven, but at its clearest it involves a wider political, historical view of global capitalism and the revolutionary potential of the class which is subject to exploitation worldwide. Those who hold to this world view need to fight openly and honestly in front of the class in order to create a force which can clearly counteract all the reactionary organisations which, one way or another, will be battling to preserve the system.

Sadly it is Autonomism’s anti-organisational position which explains why it retains much of its popularity today but we will return to this issue in our conclusion.

Hardt and Negri Attempt to Marry Autonomism with Postmodernism

Negri(30), who founded “Potere Operaio”(31) and was one of the founders of the journal “Autonomia Operaia”(32) in the early 70s, was also one of the Autonomist theorists falsely imprisoned by the Italian state after the destruction of the movement at the end of the 70s. He continued his writing in prison and cooperated with the US literature professor Michael Hardt, to produce two books, “Empire” and “Multitude”, which were published after his release. These books have received widespread acclaim and rekindled interest in Autonomism in general including the movement of the 60s and 70s. While it is true that they represent a break with the writings of “Autonomia Operaia” and the earlier period, they are in many respects extension of the theoretical positions of that period. Such an extension reveals their break with Marxism more clearly. The main theoretical positions which reappear are:

  1. The working class is autonomous of capital though it is no longer a class but a multitude.
  2. Capitalist developments are controlled by struggles of the multitude.
  3. Society has become a social factory – the factory without walls.
  4. The Marxist labour theory of value is wrong and must be replaced. Value is produced everywhere.
  5. There is no distinction between productive and unproductive labour.
  6. Capitalism’s crisis is caused by both a profit squeeze because workers’ wages are too high and a realisation problem because wages are too low.

What is new is the attempt to link Autonomism with the postmodernism theory which became popular in universities during the 80s. Postmodernism held that the economic pillars of modernism, which had supported capitalism in the period following World War Two, were Taylorism, Fordism and Keynesianism, and that these had now been superseded. In their place cooperative and communicative systems of production and teamwork using the internet and immaterial labour had been instituted.

Hardt and Negri (H&N) claim that the internet had produced a cyber-proletariat. This new proletariat was engaged in immaterial production and these knowledge workers were producing more value than workers in material production. To explain this H&N admit a new theory of value is required but they do not propose any such theory themselves.(33) If, however, this cyber-proletariat is producing more value than was produced before, this meant more surplus value was produced than previously. This assertion creates two problems. Firstly, since Marx claimed that the crisis was caused by a shortage of surplus value, and this cyber-proletariat is, we are told, now producing more, a new explanation of crisis was required. Again H&N do not propose any such explanation. Secondly, if the system does not tend to crisis, which would be the case if more surplus is being produced, then it would not be necessary for capital to attack wages and conditions. Why then should the working class struggle against the system? If class struggle is not a manifestation of the system’s tendency to crisis it must be an act of voluntarism. The creation of communism by the working class ceases to be an objective need springing from the contradictions of the system and becomes a utopian project. Despite the new concept of the cyber-proletariat and the multitude, the utopianism of the earlier theories is reproduced.

H&N tie the concept of immaterial labour with the concept of the general intellect contained in Marx’s fragment on machines in the Grundrisse .(34) They claim that this fragment, which is a note written 9 years before Capital Volume 1 was published, describes the present period better than the volumes of Capital itself. They claim it refutes not only the labour theory of value but also Marx’s analysis of crisis in Volume 3 of Capital. Immaterial labour is again autonomous from capital but it becomes more than just autonomous. Immaterial labourers, H&N claim, become free agents with their own means of production, namely their brains producing knowledge. Immaterial labour is, they conclude, no longer linked to variable capital. Furthermore, since it is cooperative and depends on horizontal communication, it validates itself and makes communism possible.

Today productivity, wealth, and the creation of social surpluses take the form of cooperative interactivity through linguistic, communicational, and affective networks. In the expression of its own creative energies, immaterial labour thus seems to provide the potential for a kind of spontaneous and elementary communism.(35)

Hence this new cyber-proletariat is autonomous and proto-communist. Somehow, despite autonomy and being spontaneously communism, capital manages to steal all the value produced!

In reality immaterial labour mainly exists in the developed countries and is mostly involved in transferring or recycling value produced by material labour to the pockets of the capitalists in these countries. H&N’s multitude is, in reality, divided into productive and unproductive labour just as Marx showed. Immaterial labour exists only because there is material labour elsewhere. Neither is immaterial labour as new to capitalism as H&N imagine. Specialisation of design for buildings, bridges, engines, etc., are examples of labour which does not produce a material product but depends on designs being built by others, in other words it depends on a material product being produced somewhere by other workers. If a material product were not produced all the labour which went into these activities would be valueless. Despite H&N’s imaginings, what we are seeing is a further division of labour but on a global scale, the division between what Marx called manual and mental labour. As we have discussed elsewhere this mental labour is directly related to variable capital and is ultimately a type of material labour.(36) All this can be explained by the labour theory of value which does not need replacing.

In the earlier Autonomist theory the idea of the social factory implied the extension of the working class beyond the factory. H&N now replace the working class with the concept of the “multitude”(37) which includes more or less everyone even those not engaged in any activity. H&N tell us:

The multitude of poor people have eaten up and digested the multitude of proletarians. By that fact the poor have become productive. Even the prostituted body, the destitute person, the hunger of the multitude - all forms of the poor have become productive … The discovery of postmodernity consisted in the reproposition of the poor at the centre of the political and productive terrain.(38)

The epochal development which H&N claim has occurred in the postmodern period is the ending of imperialism based on the nation state and its replacement by “empire.” “Empire” is an all pervading network of power consisting of supra-national and national organisations which dominate through horizontal links which extend everywhere. It is organised in three tiers. In the top tier of power we find the US, which holds hegemony over the global use of force as a type of international police. (The Gulf War of 1990 was an example of a police operation(39)) In the second tier we find nation states controlling monetary instruments and international exchanges, the World Bank, IMF, WTO organised through the G7, the Paris club, London club, Davos meetings, etc. In the third tier we find the UN, NGOs and more nation states employing cultural and “biopolitical”(40) power.(41) “Empire”, however, has no centre and no margins but is organised through a network of power centres. This structure has, we are told, been created by the capitalist class in reaction to the proletarian internationalism of the autonomous multitude.

What we see in this is the description of a unipolar world where imperialism has become a single universal power in which many nations combine. This looks like the achievement of K. Kautsky’s “ultra-imperialism” phase, which he predicted would follow the phase of imperialism. It could be argued that this is what appeared to exist in the period when “empire” was being written, namely after the collapse of the Russian bloc. This is, however, a dangerous illusion. We intend to make only a few observations on this. Firstly, the decline of imperialism based on the nation state has been a feature of the period since World War Two; it is not new. The war led to two imperialist blocs opposing each other, that of the US and that of Russia. Minor states were only able to pursue their imperialist interests within the framework of one or other imperialist bloc. Secondly, H&N see the new global structure they describe as superseding imperialism. They write:

Imperialism creates a straitjacket for capital – obstructs capitalist development … Capital must overcome imperialism.(42)

This is almost exactly the position of Kautsky who wrote in 1914:

Imperialism is thus digging its own grave. From a means to develop capitalism, it is becoming a hindrance to it.(43)

Imperialism is digging the grave of capitalism but not, as Kautsky thought, because imperialism is something left over from earlier history which capitalism had to get rid of. Imperialism is the form capitalism has developed into from the very process of concentration and centralisation of capital Marx analysed in Capital. Thus capitalism has produced imperialism. Imperialism is based on the same economic interests and conflicts of economic interests that distinguish capitalism but these contradictions have been taken to a higher level which draws in the entire planet. These contradictions are, in fact, as sharp and potentially violent as ever. The collapse of the Russian bloc has not meant imperialism is superseded. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq where the US, the so-called police power, failed in its attempt to assert its interests, provide empirical refutation of H&N’s depiction of the world. Instead, we are seeing potential new imperialist blocs arising to challenge US domination, such as the European Union and also China and Russia. Imperialism has in no way been superseded. The main point we draw from H&N books is the unrealistic and wildly optimistic picture of the potential for revolution which they locate in the multitude. The multitude, which we have already noted is autonomous and spontaneously communist, has caused capital to construct this global “empire” because capital fears the multitude’s internationalism(44) and its resistance to domination. The multitude is also capable, of itself, constructing a counter “empire”(45) and can go straight to communism without any transition period. H&N explain:

Empire creates a greater potential for revolution than did the modern regimes of power because it presents us … with an alternative: the set of all the exploited and subjugated, a multitude directly opposed to Empire, with no mediation between them.(46)

All this reinforces the view which bedevilled the earlier Autonomist movement that political organisation was not required. What organisation is required will develop from the struggle itself.

…This new militancy does not simply repeat the organisational formulas of the old revolutionary working class.(47)

Need for Political Organisation

The idea that the economic struggle will transform itself into a political struggle without any intervention of a political organisation, or at least that it will generate the required organisation itself, is today quite common. It is supported by struggle groups like the Angry Workers of the World (AWW)(48) who, in a text on their website, repeat uncritically the ideas of the Autonomists on organisation which we have criticised above. The party, we read, is a hangover from a previous period. It was supposed to bring consciousness to the class struggle from somewhere outside it. The economic struggle, they say, will lead workers to discover the political nature of capitalism.

Consciousness is of course a product of the economic struggle and the general experience of the existence of the working class. However, the process is more complex and has an internal dynamic. The daily class struggle will lead some workers to understand the political nature of capitalism but these workers must necessarily be a minority. The question is how can this consciousness be generalised and how can it be converted into an attack on the system itself, and the replacement of capitalist production relations with communism. The class struggle itself, even if linked to social struggles, is not enough to produce this. No permanent economic bodies of the class can exist without being integrated at some point into the capitalist state (and it is the fate of most rank and file unions too). An independent, dare we say autonomous, body of the class has to arise from a political rejection of all reformist attempts to buy it off. Such an organisation has to give itself the tools to link with the economic struggle and give it an historical direction as part of the fight for communism.

The working class needs to produce a movement strong enough to seize political power from the capitalist state and expropriate capital. For the linking of the economic struggle and the political struggle, for the generation of class wide communist consciousness and for a programme for gaining political power, a class party is required. Such a party is a part of the class – it is not outside the class – hence the development of communist consciousness is a dynamic process within the class. To imagine this party or a similar political organisation will arise in a spontaneous way from the economic struggle is mere dreaming. We point again to the fact that the massive struggles of Italian workers of 1969 and 1973 led to no such organisation emerging.

Today the global working class is larger than ever before which makes the potential for revolution better than ever before. However this class is fragmented in ways which give capital the upper hand. It does not yet understand itself as a global working class, nor as a class for itself. It needs a global struggle and global political organisation to become a class that can create world communism.

And this global political organisation will not be a repeat of the parties of the past. It will lead the way, inspire the fight, and argue for the communist programme that is the product of the centuries of struggle of the working class. This is by no means to argue that the political organisation can complete the process itself. The building of a new mode of production which is based on the self-activity of all people cannot be delegated to any body – not even a working class party. It is only through the mass organs of working class life that a new society can be built. Communism cannot be brought in by decree but is the living product of a mass collective consciousness struggling towards new forms of social organisation.

The question of organisation is today crucial and Autonomist theory, by condemning all political parties – and by extension any organised political struggle – as obsolete, has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. It has no answer to the complex question of how the daily resistance to the system becomes the means to politically overthrow it. Furthermore, in its attempt to rewrite key aspects of Marxism, Autonomism is undermining the very theoretical framework which we need to use to overthrow capitalism and build communism.

July 2017


(1) Workerism is the translation of Operaismo, the name by which the movement was known in Italy in the 60s and 70s.

(2) Mario Tronti rejoined the PCI in 1967. For more on his political odyssey see the section on “Political Organisation” in this article.

(3) Raniero Panzieri remained a member of the PSI and was, at one time, a member of its central committee editing its theoretical journal Mondo Operaio.

(4) Mario Tronti in his pamphlet “Lenin in England” argued for work inside the PCI to “save it from reformism.”

(5) After the assassination of the Italian Prime minister Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades in 1978, the Italian state turned on the Autonomist movement claiming it provided the intellectual justification for the Red Brigades’ campaign of terror. Thousands were imprisoned on false charges including Antonio Negri one of the leading theorists of the movement. Negri was subsequently elected as an MP, while in prison which allowed him immunity from imprisonment and he then escaped to France. After most of the charges against him were shown to be false he returned to Italy and served out the remainder of his sentence.

(6) Negri’s work in the 80s on has been criticised by other Autonomist theoreticians. For example Sergio Bologna who writes in the 80s: “Negri washes his hands of the continued difficulties of the mass worker to ply the traditional trade of the theorist in possession of some grand synthesis.” Quoted in Storming Heaven Steven Wright (Pluto Press). The entire book can be found at

(7) For example the “Angry Workers of the World” (AWW)

(8) Paul Mason’s book Post Capitalism is reviewed in Revolutionary Perspectives 07. See

(9) We have analysed this in scores of text from this to this as well as our latest analyses of the gig economy like

(10) In the UK 80% of the economy is classed as services.

(11) See Michael Ryan “The Theory of Autonomy in Negri’s other writings.”

(12) The AAUD-E (General Workers Union – unitary organisation, whose theorist was Otto Ruhle.

(13) Cobas short for “Comitati di base” base committees or rank and file unions. Recognition of Cobas as negotiators by capital resulted in their integration into capitalist management of labour placing them in a similar position to the established unions. See

(14) See A Negri “Marx beyond Marx”

(15) See A Negri “Domination and Sabotage” published 1978.

(16) See Nick Witheford “Autonomous Marxism and the information society” Capital & Class 52

(17) Quoted in Aufheben #11

(18) For an expansion on this see

(19) K Marx Capital Vol 1 Chapter 25 p. 581 [Progress Publishers].

(20) The restructuring of the large factories in northern Italy in the 60s and early 70s was seen as an example of capital reorganising itself in response to class struggles.

(21) A Negri “The politics of subversion: a manifesto for the 21st century”

(22) A Negri “Crisis of the planner state: communism and revolutionary organisation.”

(23) This was the position of Mario Tronti

(24) See Antonio Negri “Empire” p .225

(25) See Revolutionary Perspectives 06 “Piketty Marx and Capitalism’s dynamics”

(26) Sergio Bologna was one of the important theorists of the movement. He participated in Quaderni Rossi and Cronache Operaie in 1964, before founding Classe Operaia with Mario Tronti, Toni Negri and Romano Alquati

(27) See Sergio Bologna

(28) See Sergio Bologna

(29) General confederation of Italian labour. Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro

(30) A Negri started as a teacher of philosophy before he took to political writing. He is still considered an expert on Spinoza.

(31) “Potere Operaio” means workers’ power. The group published newspapers and leaflets distributed in the large factories of northern Italy from 1968 - 73

(32) Autonomia Operaio means workers autonomy. It existed from 76 to 78 and published a journal of the same name.

(33) Hardt & Negri “Empire” p. 29

(34) K Marx “Grundrisse” p.704

(35) Hardt & Negri “Empire” p.294

(36) See RP 09 Review of Gugliemo Carchedi “Behind the crisis.”

(37) Apparently the concept of the multitude comes from Spinoza who Negri claims was the seminal influence on Marx rather than Hegel.

(38) Hardt & Negri “Empire” p.158

(39) This is a complete misunderstanding of events. The motive for the war was control of the oil supplies of the region and ensuring the dollar remained the currency of the oil trade. The motive was imperialistic not the violation of international law.

(40) This is a concept borrowed from Michel Foucault, the French sociologist. It appears to mean domination through internal means via control of the consciousness of the multitude.

(41) Hardt & Negri “Empire” p.309

(42) Hardt & Negri “Empire” p.234

(43) K. Kautsky “Ultra imperialism”

(44) Hardt & Negri “Empire” p.43

(45) Hardt & Negri “Empire” p.xv

(46) Hardt & Negri “Empire” p.393

(47) Hardt & Negri “Empire” p. 413

(48) Angry Workers of the World reproduce the main arguments on organisation. See

Saturday, September 2, 2017


Four paragraphs from the end, it calls for a movement strong enogh to seize political power from the capitalist state and (my emphasis:-) EXPROPRIATE CAPITAL. So does that just mean get hold of the money, which you intend to abolish anyway, and use it until it might seem useless ?

The working class needs to produce a movement strong enough to seize political power from the capitalist state and expropriate capital.

I suppose there is an ambiguity here. The working class and those who see it as the bearer of a sustainable future needs to create a different organisation, not take the existing organisation from the capitalists. We cannot simply take what exists and with a little tweak make it serve the majority.

Capital does not merely mean money, it refers to the whole process of production for capitalist ends and its material component which includes the land, the factories, supermarkets, and the like.

More than likely the majority of it will be of no immediate use to us. It is geared up to producing profit making commodities whereas we need only what is useful for life, compatible with environmental limits.

I suspect the immediate future will have cleaning up the planet and sustainable agriculture as a prime concern, with much of today's profit motivated production of the superfluous quickly abandoned.

The only ambiguity would be if that was all we said on the question. It obviously could be worded more clearly. We have to smash the power of the capitalist state and replace it with the organs of proletarian power (which in the historically-discovered form of the soviets are at best a semi-state since they only carry out statist functions until the capitalists are suppressed so that there only function after that is to adminstratively smooth the wheels of shared production and consumption).

Responding to Cleishbotham's comment of 2017-09-18 and following having read many recent articles as in RP10 and having just printed Aurora 42 Autumn 2017, it seems ot me that, for today, we need to know which tools are available and appropriate to prevent wars. Probably many more workers have read Marx & Engels Communist Manifesto than Lenin's Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, but that book of 1916 is a guide to so much that is going on now and getting worse for workers worldwide. The CWO recommends 'workers' councils' as the best and only acceptable formations for overthrowing capitalism and running whatever follows it. How many workers know of that view ? Whilst noting the necessity of theory, steadily provided by CWO, would the following be useful ? A leaflet could be produced clearly though briefly explaining the reasons for modern wars and the need for workers councils, and then would include an application form on which anyone interested could indicate their contact details, maybe some details of things that they would be prepared to do and/or not do, then send it to CWO, for co-ordination and assessment of relative potential strengths, area by area. From that, given sufficient support, training for all sorts of necessary practical tasks would need to follow. We then come to the old problem, as described by Oscar Wilde, that it would take up too many evenings ! The present situation is that after work, many people want some sort of entertainment, rather than going out to meetings and leafleting and all the functions often dismissed as 'activism'. Then enthusiasts get dismissed as 'impatient'. But how much time has the working class got left, in view of growing possibilities of big wars ? Also, it seems that dire circumstances demand draconian action, such as Stalin's methods of getting enough weaponry to defeat that of Hitler, but we live to reconsider all that, though now again pre-wars.

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