Against “Autonomism”

— Tom Smith

In Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin argued that the “super-profits” of imperialism are used by the capitalist class to grant relative privileges and thereby co-opt sectors of the working class in the West. Lenin and other early 20th century Marxist intellectuals, such as Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky, wanted to channel all the frustrations of workers with capitalism into the struggle for working class unity and successful revolution.

This “myth” Lenin created, however, has been the rationale for the displacement of such frustrations into separatist ressentiment among the potentially radical, super oppressed, Black, Latino, female sector of the U.S. working class. According to this world view, (a) other, more privileged white male workers are the enemy — not the capitalist class; (b) the union movement is unworkable — it can never be a vehicle for revolutionary struggle.

Thankfully, in his recent two part article, Charlie Post ably dispels Lenin’s Myth of the Labor Aristocracy. Post has employed substantial statistical investigation to show that Lenin was wrong. The superprofits of imperialism have never been sufficient to produce the higher wage levels of Western workers, nor the income disparities among them.

Thus Post has performed a valuable service to the Left — except, that is, for Post’s conclusions. These, surprisingly, never transcend the problems with the Left today that his arguments should have challenged. Instead, Post concludes the second installment of his article by merely exchanging one obviously invidious myth for one more insidious: autonomism.

First, Post asserts, until there is a spontaneous rise in collective struggle takes place, “White and male workers, because of the temporary but real advantages they gain in the labor market — preferential access to better jobs — are not likely to initiate struggles against racism, sexism or homophobia in the workplace or anywhere else. Self-organization and self-activity of racially [and presumably, gender-] oppressed groups are crucial to the development of anti-racist [and anti-sexist] struggles and anti-racist [and sexist] consciousness.”

According to the Myth of Autonomism, made popular by the 1960s New Left, the super oppressed need to be “autonomous” from privileged white male workers: a kinder gentler form of separatism. That’s OK — or so the myth goes — because all these groups autonomously working apart from each other still are working together, right? Sure, we’ll all get to the promised land, maybe not on the same bus, but in a convoy of buses, with each bus operating on its own bus-line.

Isn’t it obvious by now, however — 40 years after the 1960s heyday of this ideology — that this ideology is liberal, not socialist, and that it has been a disaster for the Left? Each super-oppressed group working apart from each other is a recipe, not for socialist politics, but instead for bourgeois identity politics: for what Gramsci would call an a-political economo-corporatism. Each group, led now by movement bureaucrats, with no conception nor any interest in socialism, is out for themselves. They are driven only by a conservative, self-aggrandizing engine, away from each other and from militant struggle, toward lobbying and electoral support for the Democratic Party.

Now let us consider the second of Post’s concluding, autonomist assertions. He goes on to assert that there is “a small layer of rank and file activists who are trying to promote solidarity, militancy and democracy in the labor movement. Only if these activists, with the help of socialists in the labor movement, can succeed in building effective collective fight back will ... the politics of class radicalism ... achieve mass resonance.”

Thus, according to Post, workers as a whole must be autonomous, not simply from the bourgeoisie (this was Gramsci’s, quite welcome and fruitful, version of autonomy). Nor must they only isolate themselves from each other (as Post just asserted). The working class must also make themselves autonomous, as a class, from the socialist intellectuals themselves, who can only offer help: not leadership. (1)

As Rosa Luxemburg and other important critics like Sam Farber and Orlando Figes have pointed out, Lenin and the Bolsheviks certainly made a good number of mistakes, and not just his formulation of the Myth of the Labor Aristocracy. (2) However, his ideas concerning the need to create a vanguard party are still sound, as Ernest Mandel argues in a document often quoted by Post, The Leninist Theory of Organization, (1970). (3)

For Lenin, through the organization of such a party, socialist intellectuals must perform two vitally necessary tasks. One of them is to convert the mass of workers from bourgeois ideology to socialism. The second is to ensure that the disparate struggles of the super-oppressed fuel the radicalism of the working class as a whole, rather than create the ground for further division and cooptation by their own individual, current bureaucratic leaderships into class collaboration.

Thus, socialist intellectuals must set their sights far above the mere organization of a timid support group that, from the get-go, sets itself apart from the working class: as Post implies, and as Solidarity attempts to put into practice. As Lenin argued in What Is to Be Done, and as Stanley Aronowitz has argued recently, a principal means for this vanguard party, integrating socialist intellectuals and advanced workers into collective leadership organization, to educate the working class is to create a national, daily newspaper, financed by dues paying party members. (4) Such a party should emulate the early Communist and Socialist Workers Parties’ approach to workers organizing. We need to build organizations like the CP’s Trade Union Education League (TUEL) and the International Workers Order (IWO), which, according to Paul Buhle, “flourished in a hundred different ways ... from urban neighborhoods to industrial villages, the Bronx to coal town Pennsylvania ...” (5)

We need to aim, through the united front strategy and the transitional program of Lenin and Trotsky, to recruit, educate, and integrate workers all over the country. That is the conclusion socialists ought to draw from Post’s otherwise fine article.



  1. See the 1996 Solidarity recruiting pamphlet that Post co-wrote with Kit Wainer, titled Socialist Organizing Today, which Post refers to here, at In this pamphlet, Post and Wainer argue that it is a virtue of the organization Solidarity that they have few if any ideas from past Socialist intellectuals (such as Marx and Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Lukacs, Luxemburg, or Gramsci) to impose on the movements, and that the activists in these movements today constitute, not only potentially a part someday of a socialist vanguard, but the vanguard, now.
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  2. Rosa Luxemburg, Organizational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy (1904), The National Question (1909), The Russian Revolution (1918) and The Russian Tragedy (1918), at; Samuel Farber, Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy (New York: Verso, 1990); Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891–1924 (Penguin, 1996).
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  4. Stanley Aronowitz, Is it Time for a New Radical Party?, situations, v. I, no. 2 (2006), 117–158.
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  5. See Paul Buhle, Marxism in the United States (New York: Verso, 1987), pp. 131, 144. See also the introduction and the series of articles about communist labor organizing from the Spartacist League’s Workers Vanguard, written by Chris Knox in the 1970s, in Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program, ed. The International Bolshevik Tendency (London: Bolshevik Publications, 1998).
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ATC 126, January–February 2007