Last year Ba Jin and I, in Recomposing the Ultra-Left in New York City, wrote,
“Autonomy Has Become A Ghetto
The notion of “autonomy”–that movements can develop their own forms of self-directed organization, distinct from political parties and other dominant forces–has been twisted into its opposite in the contemporary U.S. In the 1970s, European autonomia emerged as a new generation of revolutionaries broke away from the existing communist parties. At the same time in the U.S, the black, Puerto Rican, chicano and asian movements refused to subjugate their interests and demands to those of the Old Left, which claimed to speak for everyone. From its beginnings in this time period, the term “autonomy” is now used in a variety of contexts.
The left communist milieu, for example, pursues a strategy of autonomy to avoid cooptation by unions, the state and nonprofit organizations. POC groups such as the New Black Panther Party, inspired by the example of the actual BPP, establish “survival programs” to maintain black proletarian survival in the face of poverty and state repression. Feminist collectives draw inspiration from the European feminist currents of the late 1970s, advocating autonomy from male-dominated organizations. Finally, a wide range of anarchist groupings pursue the development of autonomous projects such as community gardens, free stores, and infoshops, in order to build “the new world in the shell of the old” separate from existing state institutions.
One common thread among all these uses of “autonomy” politics is that small groups of militants substitute themselves for the movement of masses of people, pursuing “autonomous” projects that have little relation to broader proletarian communities. For example, instead of organizing with health care workers to take over hospitals and run them autonomously from profit demands, militants today might organize a small autonomous health care collective with few resources, and no relation to the masses of workers with medical expertise, while hoping their project will inspire others and spread spontaneously.
Such attempts often miss the autonomous activities of proletarian communities who continue to survive under capitalism. In so doing, they also overlook the shortcomings of such proletarian self-organization, which revolutionaries could help to address. The “autonomy” pursued by the ultra-left ultimately becomes the autonomy of revolutionaries from the proletariat, whose autonomous activity they are supposed to encourage and defend.
In contrast, we are for a strategic and fighting autonomy, modeled upon Italian Operaismo andautonomia, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and the Industrial Workers of the World. Such currents pursue autonomous movements on a mass scale, develop and execute their own self-directed strategies, and seize resources from the state and capital in order to better attack both. We believe autonomous organizing requires engaging with working class communities and the autonomous activities they’re already developing, rather than simply pursuing “autonomy” from a left subculture, or establishing self-help projects that substitute leftist activity for mass activity. These are the sorts of mass movements that autonomism must help develop in the coming years.”
Below is a theoretical expansion of what we merely described in the most partial sense. Thanks to Theorie Communiste, a deeper exploration of the category of autonomy can be understood. I have taken the liberty of extracting what I thought were helpful passages from the piece. To get the full piece visit libcom.
Self-organisation is the first act of the revolution; it then becomes an obstacle which the revolution has to overcome by Theorie Communiste
Historicizing autonomous struggles: “The “struggle”is not a historical invariant constantly expressing the same class relation. The decline of autonomy is not the decline of the “struggle”, it is the decline of a historical stage of class struggles.
In France, when self-organisation becomes the dominant form of all struggles, starting with co-ordination between the railway-workers in 1986, it no longer represents a rupture with all the mediations by which the class is a class of the mode of production (a rupture liberating the class’ revolutionary nature); self-organisation loses its “revolutionary meaning”: the overgrowth  between the self- organisation of the struggle and workers’ control of production and society. Self-organisation is nothing other than a radical form of syndicalism. Any struggle over immediate demands of any amplitude or intensity is now self-organised and autonomous; self-organisation and autonomy have become a simple moment of syndicalism (here we mean syndicalism as opposed to the formal existence of trade unions). If the organisms of struggle which the Spanish dockers adopted in the 1980s attempt to guarantee their survival and change form, it is because they were nothing other than organisms for the defence of the proletarian condition. Therein lies the continuity which explains the transition of the one into the other. The theoreticians of autonomy would have it that as such the “autonomous organs” invent communism by remaining what they are: organs of the struggle over immediate demands. As such their natural inclination is permanence and thus their “transformation”.”
“Autonomy and self-organisation represented a historical moment of the history of the class struggle and not formal modalities of action.”
“In all the current discourses on autonomy, it is remarkable to observe that it is the revolution which has disappeared.”