Autonomism refers to a set of left-wing political and social movements and theories close to the socialist movement. Autonomism (autonomia) emerged in Italy in the 1960s from workerist (operaismo) communism. Later, post-Marxist and anarchist tendencies became significant after influence from the Situationists, the failure of the Italian far-left movements in the 1970s and the emergence of a number of important theorists including Antonio Negri, who had contributed to the 1969 founding of Potere Operaio Marxist group, Mario Tronti, Paolo Virno, etc. It influenced the German and Dutch Autonomen, the worldwide Social Center movement, and today is influential in Italy, France, and to a significantly lesser extent the English-speaking countries. Those who describe themselves as autonomists now vary from Marxists to post-structuralists and (some) anarchists.
The term autonomia/Autonome is derived from the Greek "αυτό-νομος" referring to someone or something which lives by his/her own rule. autonomy, in this sense, is not independence. While independence refers to an autarcic kind of life, separated from the community, autonomy refers to life in society but by one's own rule. Aristotle thus considered that only beasts or gods could be independent and live apart from the polis ("community"), while Kant defined the Enlightenment by autonomy of thought and the famous "Sapere aude" ("dare to know").
Unlike other forms of Marxism, autonomist Marxism emphasises the ability of the working class to force changes to the organisation of the capitalist system independent of the state, trade unions or political parties. Autonomists are less concerned with party political organisation than other Marxists, focusing instead on self-organised action outside of traditional organisational structures. Autonomist Marxism is thus a "bottom up" theory: it draws attention to activities that autonomists see as everyday working class resistance to capitalism, for example absenteeism, slow working, and socialisation in the workplace.
Like other Marxists, autonomists see class struggle as being of central importance. However, autonomists have a broader definition of the working class than other Marxists: as well as wage-earning workers (both white collar and blue collar), autonomists also include the unwaged (students, the unemployed, homemakers etc), who are traditionally deprived of any form of union representation.
Early theorists (such as Mario Tronti, Antonio Negri, Sergio Bologna and Paolo Virno) developed notions of "immaterial" and "social labour" that extended the Marxist concept of labour to all society. They suggested that modern society's wealth was produced by unaccountable collective work, and that only a little of this was redistributed to the workers in the form of wages. They emphasised the importance of feminism and the value of unpaid female labour to capitalist society.
In 1969, the operaismo approach was active mainly in two different groups: Lotta Continua, led by Adriano Sofri (which had a very significant Roman Catholic cultural matrix) and Potere Operaio, led by Antonio Negri, Franco Piperno, Oreste Scalzone, and Valerio Morucci. Mario Capanna was the charismatic leader of the Milan student movement, which had a more classical Marxist-Leninist approach.
Through translations made available by Danilo Montaldi and others, the Italian autonomists drew upon previous activist research in the United States by the Johnson-Forest Tendency and in France by the group Socialisme ou Barbarie (see below). The Johnson-Forest Tendency had studied working class life and struggles within the US auto industry, publishing pamphlets such as "The American Worker" (1947), "Punching Out" (1952) and "Union Committeemen and Wildcat Strikes" (1955). That work was translated into French by Socialisme ou Barbarie and published, serially, in their journal. They too began investigating and writing about what was going on inside workplaces, in their case inside both auto factories and insurance offices.
The journal Quaderni Rossi ("Red Notebooks"), along with its successor Classe Operaia ("Working Class"), were also influential in the development of early autonomism. Both of these were founded by Antonio Negri and Mario Tronti - Quaderni Rossi was produced between 1961 and 1965, and Classe Operaia between 1963 and 1966.
The Italian student movement, starting from 1966 (murder by neo-fascists of student Paolo Rossi in Rome University) engaged in various direct action operations, including riots and University occupations], along with more peaceful activities such as self reduction, in which individuals refused to pay for such services and goods as public transport, electricity, gas, rent, and food. Several clashes occurred between the students ("Movimento studentesco") and the police, during the occupations of Universities in the winter 1967-1968, during the Fiat occupations, in March 1968 in Rome during the "Battle of Valle Giulia".
Giuseppe Pinelli was held and interrogated for three days, longer than Italian law specified that people could be held without seeing a judge. On December 15, he died after falling out of a window. Luigi Calabresi, the police officer who had directed his interrogation, as well as other officers were accused of pushing him out of the window, and put under investigation in 1971 for murder, but charges were dropped because of lack of evidence. The next year, Calabresi was murdered by two shots from a revolver outside his home.
Another anarchist, Pietro Valpreda, was arrested, sentenced for the crime, before being released and eventually cleared sixteen years later. In the 1980s, the neo-fascist terrorist Vincenzo Vinciguerra confessed to magistrate Felice Casson that the bombing had in fact been carried out by the far-right organisation Ordine Nuovo, supported by Gladio, NATO's stay-behind anti-Communist network, in an attempt to push the state into declaring a state of emergency. All defendants were acquitted by the Court of Cassation on May 3, 2005, during the seventh trial for the Piazza Fontana bombing.
This attack has been widely considered part of the strategy of tension (strategia della tensione), which allegedly aimed at destabilizing the country through a campaign of "false flags" terrorist attacks - attacks blamed on left-wing groups. The strategy aimed to promote an authoritatian government and (in later years) to sabotage the possibilities for a historic compromise (compromesso storico) between the Christian Democracy (DC) and the Communist Party (PCI).
In 1988, former Lotta continua member Adriano Sofri was arrested, along with Ovidio Bompressi and Giorgio Pietrostefani, for the murder of Luigi Calabresi, the police officer who was suspected of having killed Giuseppe Pinelli. The charges against them were based on the violent press campaign conducted by Lotta Continua against Calabresi, on testimony provided, sixteen years after the facts, by a "collaboratore di giustizia"- an ex-militant who contacted police authorities and accused himself of having carried out the murder of Calabresi (under order from Sofri) and collaborated with the magistrates. Sofri claimed his innocence, but was sentenced after a long series of trials, in 2000. Historian Carlo Ginzburg wrote, on this case, a book in support of Sofri's innocence, entitled The Judge and the Historian: Marginal Notes on a Late Twentieth-Century Miscarriage of Justice.
Starting from 1979, the state effectively prosecuted the autonomist movement, claiming it protected the Red Brigades, which had kidnapped and assassinated Aldo Moro. 12,000 far-left activists were detained; 600 fled the country, including 300 to France and 200 others to South America..
In France, the marxist group Socialisme ou Barbarie, led by philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis, could be said to be one of the first autonomist groups, as well as having importance in the council communist tradition. As mentioned above, Socialisme ou Barbarie drew upon the American Johnson-Forest Tendency's activist research inside US auto plants and carried out their own investigations into rank and file workers struggles - struggles autonomous of union or party leadership.
Also parallel to the work of the Johnson-Forest Tendency, Socialisme ou Barbarie harshly criticised the Stalinist regime in the USSR, which it considered a form of 'bureaucratic capitalism' and not at all the state socialism it pretended to be. Philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, famous for his work on post-modernism, was also part of this movement.
However, the Italian influence of the operaismo movement was more directly felt in the creation of the review Matériaux pour l'intervention (1972-1973) by Yann Moulier-Boutang, a French economist close to Toni Negri. This led in turn to the creation of the Camarades group (1974-78) by Moulier-Boutang. Along with others, Moulier-Boutang joined the Centre International pour des Nouveaux Espaces de Liberté (CINEL), founded three years before by Félix Guattari, and assisted Italian activists accused of terrorism, of whom at least 300 fled to France.
The French autonome mouvement organised itself in the AGPA (Assemblée Parisienne des Groupes Autonomes, "Parisian Assembly of Autonome Groups"; 1977-78). Many tendencies were present in it, including the Camarades group led by Moulier-Boutang, members of the Organisation communiste libertaire (OCL - an autonomist group), some people referring themselves to the "Desiring Autonomy" of Bob Nadoulek, but also squatters and street-wise people (including the groupe Marge). French autonomes supported captured Rote Armee Fraktion ("Red Army Faction" - RAF) terrorists. Jean-Paul Sartre also intervened on the conditions for the detention of RAF detainees.
The militant group Action Directe appeared in 1979 and carried out several violent direct actions. Action Directe claimed responsibility for the murders of Renault's CEO Georges Besse and General Audran. George Besse had been CEO of nuclear company Eurodif. Action Directe was dissolved in 1987.
In the 1980s, the autonomist movement underwent a deep crisis in Italy because of effective prosecution by the State, and was stronger in Germany than in France. It remained present in Parisian squats and in some riots (for example in 1980 near the Jussieu campus in Paris, or in 1982 in the Ardennes department during anti-nuclear demonstrations). In the 1980s, the French autonomists published the periodicals CAT Pages (1981-1982), Rebelles (1981-1993), Tout ! (1982-1985), Molotov et Confetti (1984), Les Fossoyeurs du Vieux Monde, La Chôme (1984-1985) and Contre (1987-1989).
In the 1990s, the French autonomist movement was present in struggles led by unemployed people, with Travailleurs, Chômeurs, et Précaires en colère (TCP, "Angry Workers, Unemployed, and Precarious people") and l'Assemblée générale des chômeurs de Jussieu ("General Assembly of Jussieu's unemployed people"). It was also involved in the alter-globalisation movement and above all in the solidarity with illegal foreigners (Collective Des Papiers pour tous ("Permits for all", 1996) and Collectif Anti-Expulsion (1998-2005)). Several autonomist journals date from this time: Quilombo (1988-1993), Apache (1990-1998), Tic-Tac (1995-1997), Karoshi (1998-1999), and Tiqqun (1999-2001).
In 2003, autonomists came into conflict with the French Socialist Party (PS) during a demonstration that took place in the frame of the European Social Forum in Saint-Denis (Paris). At the end of December, hundreds of unemployed people helped themselves in the Bon Marché supermarket to be able to celebrate Christmas (an action called "autoréduction" (of prices) in French). French riot police (CRS) physically opposed the unemployed people inside the shop. Autonomes rioted during the spring 2006 protests against the CPE, and again after the 2007 presidential election when Nicolas Sarkozy was elected.
In Germany, Autonome was used during the late 1970s to depict the most radical part of the political left. These individuals participated in practically all actions of the social movements at the time, especially in demonstrations against nuclear energy plants (Brokdorf 1981, Wackersdorf 1986) and in actions against the construction of airport runways (Frankfurt 1976-1986). The defense of squats against the police such as in Hamburg's Hafenstraße was also a major "task" for the "autonome" movement. The Dutch anarchist Autonomen movement from the 1960s also concentrated on squatting.
Tactics of the "Autonome" were usually militant, including the construction of barricades or throwing stones or molotov cocktails at the police. During their most powerful times in the early 1980s, on at least one occasion the police had to take flight.
Because of their outfit (heavy black clothing, ski masks, helmets), the "Autonome" were dubbed der schwarze Block by the German media, and in these tactics were similar to modern black blocs. In 1989, laws regarding demonstrations in Germany were changed, prohibiting the use of so-called "passive weaponry" such as helmets or padding and covering your face.
Today, the "autonome" scene in Germany is greatly reduced and concentrates mainly on anti-fascist actions, ecology, solidarity with refugees, and feminism. There are larger and more militant groups still in operation, such as in Switzerland or Italy.
The Autonomist Marxist and Autonomen movements provided inspiration to some on the revolutionary left in English speaking countries, particularly among anarchists, many of whom have have adopted autonomist tactics. Some English-speaking anarchists even describe themselves as Autonomists. The Italian operaismo movement also influenced Marxist academics such as Harry Cleaver, John Holloway, Steve Wright, and Nick Dyer-Witheford. In Denmark, the word is used as a catch-all phrase for anarchists and the extraparliamentary extreme left in general, as was seen in the media coverage of the eviction of the Ungdomshuset squat in Copenhagen in March 2007.