Self-organisation is the first act of the revolution; it then becomes an obstacle which the revolution has to overcome
Theorie Communiste look at revolution as communisation, through the lense of some recent struggles.
Autonomy, as a revolutionary perspective realising itself through self-organisation, is paradoxically inseparable from a stable working class, easily discernable at the very surface of the reproduction of capital, comfortable within its limits and its definition by this reproduction and recognised within it as a legitimate interlocutor. Autonomy is the practice, the theory and the revolutionary project of the epoch of “fordism”. Its subject is the worker and it supposes that the communist revolution is his liberation, i.e. the liberation of productive labour. It supposes that struggles over immediate demands1 are stepping stones to the revolution, and that capital reproduces and confirms a workers’ identity within the relation of exploitation. All this has lost any foundation.
In fact it is just the opposite: in each of its struggles, the proletariat sees how its existence as a class is objectified in the reproduction of capital as something foreign to it and which in its struggle it can be led to put into question. In the activity of the proletariat, being a class becomes an exterior constraint objectified in capital. Being a class becomes the obstacle which its struggle as a class has to overcome; this obstacle possesses a reality which is clear and easily identifiable, it is self-organisation and autonomy.
The bitter victory of autonomy
Self-organisation everywhere, revolution nowhere
We can only speak of autonomy if the working class is capable of relating to itself against capital and finding in this relationship to itself the basis of and the capacity for its affirmation as dominant class. Autonomy supposes that the definition of the working class is not a relation but is inherent to it. It was a question of the formalisation of what we are in present society as basis for the new society, which is to be constructed as the liberation of what we are.
From the end of the first world war up to the beginning of the 1970s, autonomy and self-organisation weren’t simply the wildcat strike and a more or less conflicting relationship with the unions. Autonomy was the project of a revolutionary process extending from self-organisation to the affirmation of the proletariat as the dominant class of society, through the liberation and affirmation of labour as the organisation of society. In freeing up the “true situation” of the working class from its integration in the capitalist mode of production, an integration represented by all the political and union institutions, autonomy was the revolution under way, the potential revolution. If this was explicitly the agenda of the Ultra-Left, it wasn’t only an ideology. Self-organisation, union power and the workers’ movement belonged to the same world of revolution as affirmation of the class. The affirmation of the truly revolutionary being which manifested itself in autonomy couldn’t have had the slightest hint of reality if it hadn’t been the good, unalienated side of the same reality which resided in a powerful workers’ movement “constraining” the class. The workers’ movement was itself also the guarantee of the independence of the class which was ready to reorganise the world in its own image; it was sufficient to reveal the true nature of this power to itself, by de-bureaucratising it, disalienating it. It was not a rare occurrence that workers passed from the necessarily ephemeral constitution of autonomous organisations of struggle to the parallel universe of triumphant Stalinism or, in northern Europe, to the bosom of powerful unions. Autonomy and workers’ movement nourished and comforted eachother mutually. The Stalinist leader was perhaps the “workers’ equivalent of the boss by divine right”, but he was also the institutional counterpart of autonomy. Self-organisation as a revolutionary theory made sense in exactly the same conditions as those which gave structure to the “old workers’ movement”. Self-organisation is the self-organised struggle with its necessary extension the self-organisation of the producers; in a word, liberated labour; in another word, value.
A little step backwards. Already in the Italy of 1969, the sectors of workers in struggle are incapable of creating an “assembly” connecting up the diverse forms of self-organisation and the movement is “recuperated” by the CGIL and its workshop committees. Still in Italy, in the self-convened movements of February-March 1984 on the production line, self-organisation is seen to be defensive, in the sense that it expresses the defence of an old composition and an old relation of the working class to capital, a relation which restructuring is in the process of abolishing. For the same reasons, in Spain the assemblies movement (1976, ’77, ’78) creates or revitalises union structures; likewise the Dutch “hot autumn” of 1983. This is equally the epoch in which all sorts of “autonomous unions” are formed. It is fundamentally a historical type of working class whose existence is put into question by the restructuring. At Renault, during the strikes of 1975, it is the factory of Le Mans, where labour power is the most stable and the rate of unionisation, at 40% is double the national average for Renault, that the strike is the hardest and sometimes has the air of an “autonomous struggle”. At the beginning of the 1980s, when this process of streamlining “is completed” essentially by hitting the unskilled immigrant workforce, provoking an enormous wave of strikes in the car industry, the violence of the struggles is never formalised in attempts to set up autonomous organs. “They want to kill us, but we’re already dead”, such is the spirit of the struggles. If in 1983-84, it is equally difficult to qualify the miners’ strike in Britain as an “autonomous, self-organised struggle”, it is because it was in fact a strike without demands, without a programme, without perspectives. What it meant to be a class was now only defined in and through the adversary of that class, in the action against it. The decline and lost meaning of autonomy are not a simple product of the retreat of class 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.