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Mario Tronti and the many faces of autonomy

Mario Tronti’s Workers and Capital is a landmark work in the history of Marxism. A central theme of the work is the concept of autonomy. In this article, Seth Wheeler analyses the shifting understandings of autonomy in the history of the left, and Tronti's unique contribution.

Seth Wheeler29 August 2019

Mario Tronti and the many faces of autonomy

The long-awaited recent translation of Mario Tronti’s Workers and Capital into English will no doubt help to reposition the concept of autonomy in the lexicon of the Anglophone left. This concept has taken on multiple and shifting meanings throughout the left's history. Often these meaning have been used interchangeably, potentially rendering the term nebulous and open to misinterpretation. Yet by looking at it through the lens of this Operaist classic, it may help to clarify autonomy and its utility for working class militants.

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Autonomy and Autonomist Marxism.

‘Autonomist Marxism’ is a term used to describe a body of intellectual work associated with the hybridisation of two historic social movements - Operaismo and Autonomia (autonomy) that were active in Italy between the late 1960s and early 1980s. Operaismo (literally ‘Workerism’) developed within the struggle of workers for better wages, working conditions and hours, and grew in influence during Italy’s so-called ‘Creeping May’–this label being used to mark its similarity in origin with the events of Paris in 1968 as much as to identify its disparity in extension and intensity.

The Operaist tendency first developed within the political culture of Italy’s two large left-wing parties, the PCI (Communist) and PSI (Socialist). Theoretically, it is associated with the development of a Marxian sociology, conducted from the ‘workers point of view’, that provided activists with conceptual frameworks through which the emergence of new workers’ struggles, falling outside of either the party or union discipline, could be comprehended and engaged with. Central to Operaismo lay the idea of ‘workers’ autonomy’, understood as the potential separation of labour from capitalism, a possibility displayed by the actions of workers during their disputes. This central thrust led activists to reassess the traditional organs of working-class representation — the political parties and the trade unions — which in many instances were perceived to be disciplinary vehicles that maintained workers in their position as labour within capital.

Emerging in an encounter between Operaismo and the new youth and student movements that began to coalesce in Italy in the early 1970s, Autonomia was a heterogeneous extra-parliamentary social movement that contained several identifiable spheres: ‘workers’ autonomy, ‘creative’ autonomy and the diffuse ‘area of autonomy’. Mutating out of factory, educational and community struggles, and incorporating the concerns of second wave feminism, Autonomia expanded its critical framework to include a systematic critique of all facets of life under capitalism: from the ‘factory floor to the factory of society’ as they saw it.

Since then, over the past 50 years Autonomist Marxism as a body of thought has grown in influence among the international left and within the academy, providing a key theoretical lynchpin for a variety of social movements, intellectual inquiries and global struggles.

Despite this rich genealogy there are many perspectives on the emergence of autonomy and its relationship to social movements that deploy its languages and that render the term itself nebulous, even if the term itself remains a key concept for communist critique and debate.

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The other faces of Autonomy.

The meaning and nature of autonomy has had a privileged position in left debates since the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA), the first internationally coordinated communist organisation founded in 1864.. Concepts pertaining to the autonomy of workers to deliver their emancipation outside of parliamentary representation, revolutionary leadership or the seizure of the state, have divided the communist movement into two allegedly distinct camps: anarchist and Marxist. Yet, while the objects of these categories can and do act as discrete political spheres, they nevertheless also contain their own divergences and internal oppositions, which may blur the boundaries between what is perceived to be either assignably ‘anarchist’ or ‘Marxist’ theory or practice.

Anarchist concepts of autonomy.

Anarchism can be divided into multiple tendencies that, by way of commonality, present themselves as a rejection of all forms of authority in principle. Nevertheless, its dominant formation during the last century has been anarcho-communism, an anti-capitalist and anti-statist movement that sought to establish a global human community predicated on overcoming the contradictions between individual and social freedoms. Like traditional Marxists, anarchist communists believe the working class to be the revolutionary agent of history; but they reject the necessity or possibility of state capture as an instrument for the establishment of communism. Sharing with Marxists a comprehension of the state as an organised body for upholding the rule of one class over another, anarchist communists infer from this that the immediate destruction of the state is a condition for the delivery of communism proper. In fact, the question of the role of the state for revolutionary transformation was the principle upon which the IWA would eventually collapse. To simplify a series of disputes which were often more personal and conspiratorial than politically principled: Marx and his followers, who upheld the necessity of the seizure of the state as a transitional measure prior to its projected dissolution, expelled the anarchist Bakunin and his own followers from the IWA. This latter group, which was seen coalescing around a rejection of state seizure as neither liberatory nor a possible means for the establishment of communism, would consequently come to be identified in the communist movement as ‘anarchists.’

To this end, anarchist-communists favour practical models of working-class self-organisation that reify anti-authoritarian practice, privileging decentralisation, direct democratic participation and, more recently, the ‘consensus model’ of decision-making. These modalities contain a prefigurative element that, for anarchists, both pinpoints and demonstrates the power of these decision-making strategies to manage any future communist society autonomously, that is without redress to centralised government or state planning. For anarchist militants, working class autonomy, or the revolutionary capacity of the working class to organise outside of organs seen to be acting in either the state or capitalism’s interests, is a prerequisite for legitimately identifying political practice as revolutionary. For them autonomy slides between multiple yet interconnected usages: describing an individual or a group’s capacity for self-determination and organise freely; a rejection of the state; and, from these previous two capacities, the basis for communism itself.

The Marxist-Leninist comprehension of autonomy.

The history of Marxism, as a revolutionary force, is most commonly associated with the history of what became of the Soviet project and therefore of Marxism-Leninism itself. Marxism-Leninism is distinguished from anarchistic variants of communist practice by its insistence on the necessity of a revolutionary vanguard, embodied in the idea of mutual discipline to a sole revolutionary party seen as an expression of the class itself. In this sense, Marxism-Leninism possesses its own limited notion of ‘autonomy’ in as much as what Lenin called ‘democratic centralism’ presented a mechanism for the working class to organise on its own terms, albeit through institutional and disciplinary meditations which permit it to do so on mass. Democratic centralism, as identified in Lenin’s pamphlet What Is to Be Done? can be summed-up with the maxim ‘freedom of debate, unity of action’. This was thought to distinguish it in form from the structures of the ‘bourgeois’ political party in that it allowed an expression and representation of working-class interest alongside party discipline.

In orthodox Marxism-Leninism, the seizure of state power is seen as an essential component of the transition to communism. State power provides an instrument through which the entanglement of working class existence with the authority and disciplinary logics of the state and capitalism could be gradually undone, as the conditions for communism (material abundance, freedom from labour and the full realisation of class-consciousness) developed. The perceived success of the Russian revolution on these terms would exert an influence over the political imagination and allegiances of the global communist movement during the early part of the 20th century, inspiring revolutionary movements that aped if not directly incorporated Marxism-Leninism’s insistence on the development of the forces of production as a vehicle to strengthen the workers’ movement ‘in and beyond’ capitalism. The Soviet project’s material support for revolutionary and anti-colonial movements globally positioned Marxism-Leninism as a vehicle for ‘autonomy’ conceived as national liberation from colonial power.

New Left comprehensions of autonomy.

Marxism-Leninism’s insistence on the centrality of the development of productive forces for communism’s realisation was not without criticism. Nevertheless, it would take the repression of a workers’ uprising in Hungary in 1956 by Soviet forces and the disclosure of Krushchev’s ‘secret speech’ condemning the ‘excesses’ of Stalinism to irreversibly shake the foundations of the Soviet Union’s authoritative claim to uphold the cause of working class emancipation from capitalism and the state for many socialists in the West. This rupture led to an international exchange of ideas among Marxist academics and militants who no longer held an uncritical allegiance to the Soviet authority. In the British context, the most notable of these figures were the historians Edward Thompson and CLR James whose polemics against the soviet authority would ignite an international dialogue incorporating notions of social freedom, non-coercive organisational affinity and a critique of the centrality of production to working class emancipation. These interventions would shape debates that would go on to influence the parameters of a new communist militancy over the course of the following decades: commonly referred to as the New Left. While the New Left failed to cohere into a unified position, it nevertheless can be comprehended as sharing a ‘general autonomy’ emerging out of the events of 1956, comprising a capacity to enquire into new Marxisms outside of the strictures of democratic centralism and Soviet authority. These comprehensions would greatly shape the politics and orientation of the latter New Social Movements (NSM) of the 1960s.

Incorporating and emerging alongside the new feminist movements, gay and lesbian liberation and the black and anti-colonial struggles of the late 1960s, the NSMs provided a fertile ground for novel notions of political organisation centered on the direct bodily experiences of different and often marginalised social subjects, without losing sight of the primacy of capitalism or the state for organising these experiences. Without adherence to either a single party or a unifying communist authority, many in the broad orbit of the New Left would eventually move away from the centrality of the ‘uniform proletarian figure’ as the idealised agent of social transformation. The reification of the factory worker, which had been utilised by Marxism-Leninism to cohere party allegiance while developing production in line with its thinking, was joined by an open-ended array of diverse social subjects unified by their opposition to capitalism.

It would be easy to assert that an expanded notion of who exactly constituted revolutionary agency was merely a response to the collapse of the Soviet project’s authority over the imagination of international communists. But transformations affecting both the organisation and comprehension of working life inside the economies of the capitalist West would also play a pivotal role in expanding the category of revolutionary agency in explicitly Marxist terms and with reference to the idea of autonomy.

It is important at this juncture to point out a common logic underscoring both anarchist and Marxist-Leninist comprehensions of autonomy. For both, a formal notion and series of conditions of ‘working class autonomy’ needed to be created and nurtured in order for autonomy to become ‘real’ or adequate to its concept, and for communism to be established. For Anarchists this comprised the immediate destruction of the state and the establishment of small-scale self-governing communes; for Marxist-Leninists this comprised the establishment of a workers’ party, seizure of state power and a socialist programme to develop the productive forces and create the conditions for communism. This can be compared to the different logics emerging within the Marxist tradition after the rupture of 1956, who recognised ‘autonomy’ as real in advance of its realisation (the ‘Form’ or ‘Idea’ of autonomy) and as a tendency in the development and maintenance of capitalism itself.

This grounding comprehension is exemplified in the theoretical insights of Mario Tronti, most notably in his thesis addressing the ‘Copernican Inversion’ in which the struggle of the working class to exert their autonomy was demonstrated to dictate capitalism’s novel developments in the production process.

For example- skilled mechanics installing engines into motorcars go out on a strike in their factory. This stalls production and brings the whole plant to a halt. The strikers win some piecemeal demands and return to work. To overcome the power these workers wield, capital restructures the production process, introducing assembly lines that transform the ‘technical composition’ of the workforce. This renders workers unable to exert power in the ways they had before (decomposing their power), while simultaneously streamlining the factory, speeding up production and ensuring healthier returns for the owners and their investors. As such workers have to think of new ways to exert their autonomy and their interests (recompose their power), finding fresh blockages or new tactics that can sabotage the production process. If the workers are successful in that enterprise, this will inevitably kick start another cycle of ‘innovation’ or restructuring. In this way, workers do not need communism to be established in order to express their autonomy in an important, albeit limited way.

The whole of class history ebbs and flows in this way, in which our collective power to act upon the world in our own interest is constantly decomposed and then recomposed in the struggle between our class and capitalism’s opposing interests.

Seth Wheeler is a contributing editor at

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