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The following text is based on Jack Fuller, Worker’s Autonomy (Autonomia Operaia), in: International Socialism 8 (Spring 1980).
The autonomous movement was a series of locally based collectives, and marked the end of a whole period in workers thought and struggle. The concept of a single national organisation was temporarily abandoned. Instead the name Workers Autonomy was adopted by a growing number of small groups and collectives based around workplaces, geographical areas or particular groups of the population such as the unemployed or students. The universities in particular became an important base for the autonomists, no longer as centres for well educated, middle class, discontented students, but as a huge meeting place for unemployed youth.
Toni Negri was one of key theoretical figure in establishing Autonomia Organizzata (Organized Autonomy), a loosely coordinated network of local organizations throughout Italy. Autonomia was decidedly opposed to the notion of vanguard party and centralized leadership, posing instead the autonomy of local groups. Negri insisted that political organization had continually to pose the problem of centralization and democracy. In past communist revolutions, the centralized party management of power has always at a certain point strangled the proletarian organization of powers, and at that point the revolution has come to an end. In this sense Negri argued for Autonomia to be an anti-party, a decentralized and open network of political organizations.
Throughout the mid-1970s various autonomous groups particular in Italy carried on a political intervention in their workplaces and localities. These struggles varied enormously in their aims. They included organising mass refusal to pay fares on buses, squatting, or self reduction of rents, telephone bills, etc. In the workplaces too the autonomists led many mass struggles, often in the face of bitter opposition from the unions or the communist party. The social base of the autonomists became increasingly those sections excluded (or marginalised, as the autonomists would say) from the productive process. These sectors were not only alienated from capitalist production but also felt alienated from the nationally organised revolutionary left. Feeling disillusioned and betrayed by the revolutionary parties, these sectors were far more responsive to the autonomists, who did not have a national structure and placed such great emphasis on the subjectivity of the participants within any struggle.
The autonomists and the movements interacted with each other to bring about a major shift in the ideology of the former workerists. For not only did the autonomist groups appear to offer an alternative to the authoritarian groups of the traditional revolutionary left, but the movements gave the autonomist current a real social milieu to work in. Every act of attack has been a search for a form of struggle that would pay immediately. The entire sequence of forms of struggle has developed as a process of perfecting a system of power. The masses exercised this power, while the vanguards indicated the terrain on which to move. The vanguards did not present themselves as a substitution for the archaic trade union functions. On the contrary, they presented the immediate terrain of the struggle for power. The synthesis of political and economic action, which is always a characteristic of the revolutionary struggle of the working class, happened here immediately, at the level of the exercise of the autonomist power.