Storming Heaven or Blowing Hot Air? A critique of ‘The steam and the piston box: is autonomism an alternative?’


Over the last two hundred years a vast divergence of revolutionary ideas and theories have emerged as part of the struggle for emancipation. The relationships between different approaches have often been antagonistic and sometimes literally deadly. These days whilst the shooting has stopped it is not uncommon for a particular radical ‘tradition’ to caricature, mystify and turn into straw-men divergent ideas. A recent example of this practice is Sean Ledwith’s (2015) The steam and the piston box: is autonomism an alternative? Published by Counterfire, which is one of the many fragments and splits from the Socialist Workers Party – the centre of the International Socialist Tendency. Common to the genre Ledwith tries to critique a specific approach to anti-capitalism in the UK and locate this apparent error in the theory that stands behind it.

For Ledwith in the wake of the Tory election victory and the pathetic behaviour of the Labour Party and Trade Union leadership there is a danger that the new wave of struggles that have emerged may take the wrong course. There is a:

… danger that some involved in such events may believe that traditional organisations of the left such as the trade unions and the Labour Party are now obsolete and should be bypassed.

This notion may develop further into the view that any type of formal leadership is counter-productive and that the way forward for radical politics is total avoidance of anything resembling an organisation with a hierarchy.

The danger then is that people will act in a way different from the strategy of Counterfire and organise in ways different from how Counterfire organises. Behind this error lurks ‘autonomism’, which Ledwith defines as ‘hostility to formal organisation by sections of the left’.

Whilst this article is written in a UK context you can be sure that it will be used on a social media as an easy go to whenever this strange beast ‘autonomism’ needs to be addressed. Since it might be used as a blunt weapon to bash heads with it is worth showing just how bullshit it is.

Autonomism is commonly used in the Anglophone world, along with ‘Autonomist Marxism’ to mean all the different tendencies that emerged out of Italian Operaismo (however it is often used to include other radical perspectives such as the Dutch and German Autonomen). The best available history of this is Steve Wright’s (2002) Storming Heaven. Whilst it is often assumed to be synonymous with the writings of Toni Negri it can refer to a vast range of divergent and conflicting theorists, actors and ideas. The vast majority of the historical and current authors from Italy haven’t been translated into English – include what could be seen as the core text of Operaismo Tronti’s Operai e Capital.

Ledwith presents the development of autonomism as fitting to the core clichéd narrative of ‘ultraleftism’ as it is so often deployed by socialist groups. Facing the reformist limitations of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) the autonomists focused on the militant actions of small sections of the class. This underplayed the popularity of the PCI and the widespread and deep nature of the social democratic consciousness of the class. Then ‘Following the downturn of their fortunes from the late 1970s’ the autonomists turned their disappointments on the blue collar workers which they understood as ‘mass worker’ and as being bought off and placed all their hopes in a new section of the class the ‘social worker’. This then leads to the extra sin of splitting the class and increasingly internal division. To prove all this Ledwith then quotes a particularly damning quote from Negri’s essay Domination and  Sabotage.

From here Ledwith then connects the idea of the precarity and the failure of the Arab Spring and Occupy. The problem is apparently the rejection of leadership. Drawing on a useful Trotsky quote the author then drops this clanger: ‘Autonomists like to claim any such aspirational leadership will inevitably reproduce the tyrannical hierarchies of capitalism we seek to overthrow. Such pessimism is just a variant of the ruling class myth that socialism is impossible because human nature is fundamentally selfish.’ The take away lessons are as follows: we need to work outside the Labour Party and cooperate with those within it to lead a break away that will take popular support with us and build the kind of revolutionary organisation that can lead the revolution and thus ‘allowing the piston box to take shape and ensuring in future upsurges the forces seeking to liberate humanity are as well-organised as those seeking to oppress it.’

Whatever one thinks of Counterfire’s strategy as a mere description of ‘autonomism’ this article is total bullshit. As history it is pretty bad. What Ledwith leaves out is the massive repression that the Italian state brought down on the social movements and struggles (which were much bigger than Autonomia), repression which the PCI was complicit in. Rather he presents it as if autonomism just ran out of puff. Also if Operaismo/Autonomia are to be declared failures – they did after all not overcome capitalism -what is the benchmark of success? The Socialist Workers Party of the 1970s? Is he seriously saying that the SWP and the Movement of ’77 are even comparable?

As mention before what we put under the label autonomism is an incredibly diverse and often contradictory sets of theories and practices. However if one could distil a minimal shared position it would be as follows:

  • Capitalism is driven by the struggles of the working class. ‘At the level of socially developed capital, capitalist development becomes subordinated to working class struggles; it follows behind them, and they set the pace to which the political mechanisms of capital’s own reproduction must be tuned’ (Tronti 1964)
  • The radical development of capitalism means the constant transformation of class composition. This is how we work, where we work, the way it is organised, the ideas we hold and how we live life. The changes in class composition will mean the need for the class to reinvent appropriate forms of organisation. ‘For each historical phase of class struggle, we identify a compositional type of working class, which is at its core not only its location in the overall process of production, but also the series of experiments with struggle, comportments, and the way determinate and life needs come to be renewed and newly defined’(Negri 2014, 11). There is no ahistorical solution to how to organise and fight.

Tied to this is a particular methodology of militant inquiry or coresearch. This means a radical investigation into our experiences of work and struggle to draw out the dynamics in the composition that could lead somewhere. Sergio Bologna (2014) gives is a glimpse of what this meant in Operaismo’s heyday and in practice:

Thousands of workers left the factories early in the morning after working the night shift, while many others were already outside waiting at the gates to enter for the first morning shift. This was the best moment to distribute and spread the flyers of Classe Operaia and Potere Operaio. These flyers were almost always written according to directions given by the workers of those same factories, after a long labor of “co-research,” a dialogue and exchange of opinions and information between militant workerists and factory workers.

True to this approach fit a number of general perspectives. Firstly that the working class has the potential to break the capital relation and create communism rather than needing to go through a period of development of industry know as ‘socialism’; and that the working class can’t be reduced to the formal organisations that try to speak in it’s name.

Already we can see that Ledwith get’s the basics of what he calls autonomism wrong. But things get even worse if we read the essay Domination and Sabotage (Negri 2005, 231-290) and see just how badly he mangles it. In this essay Negri argues that capitalism has been thrown into crisis by the wave of struggles of the proceeding years, so much so that capitalism increasingly relies on the direct action of the state to impose command as a way of ensure the basic social relations of capital and as part of the process of trying to decompose proletarian power. Linked to this is the attempt to impose hierarchies in the class that create increased amounts of disunity. The section Ledwith quotes from is one which argues that this disunity needs to be broken, that the attempts to divide the class overcome and that this may require other sections of the class going into the factories and telling people what is what. As confrontational as the behaviour maybe it is not about splitting the class but rather asking practically what is necessary to generate class unity in struggle. Negri continues:

Now, at this point I should answer those jackals that I already hear howling: I am not saying that the Mirafiori worker is not an exploited worker (this is how far you have to go in order to polemicize with jackals!). I am saying that the “Party of Mirafiori” must today live the politics of the proletarian majority, and that any position which is restricted purely to the necessary struggle in the factory, and which is not connected to the proletarian majority, is a position that is bound to lose. The factory struggle must live within the proletarian majority. (251)

Even worse for Ledwith this essay is an essay where rather than arguing against organisation Negri argues for the inescapable necessity of the party! Certainly he sees the self-activity of the class to be greater than the party, and that it cannot be controlled by the party, but he does argue for a party that will work as the ‘unwavering executor of the proletarian will’ (279).

So too the terms mass worker and social worker refer not to counter posed and hostile sections of the class but rather evolving class compositions.

From top to bottom Ledwith gets it wrong. As for a specific strategy for the present obviously the different autonomist authors can speak for themselves. But as a general approach we would have to start from class composition. The question of how workers should look at the remnants of social democracy isn’t a question that flows up there somewhere from abstract normative discussions but can only be addressed from starting from the material conditions of our lives. An interesting debate in the UK on strategy is happening around the question of the social strike between a participant in Plan C and the collective Angry Workers of the World. (AngryWorkersWorld 2015, Milburn 2015).

But finally whatever strategy one may see as appropriate it doesn’t help anyone to get opposing positions so grossly wrong – it just generates hot air.

AngryWorkersWorld. 2015. Comments on Plan C Leeds Text: “On Social Strikes and Directional Demands”. Angry Workers of the World [cited 1st June 2015]. Available from

Bologna, Sergio. 2014. Workerism Beyond Fordism: On the Lineage of Italian Workerism. Viewpoint Magazine [cited 10th June 2015]. Available from

Ledwith, Sean. 2015. The Steam and the Piston Box: Is Autonomism an Alternative? Counterfire [cited 10th June 2015]. Available from

Milburn, Keir. 2015. On Social Strikes and Directional Demands. Plan C [cited 1st June 2015]. Available from

Negri, Antonio. 2005. Books for Burning: Between Civil War and Democracy in 1970s Italy. Translated by Arianna Bove, Ed Emery, Timothy S. Murphy and Francesca Novello. London & New York: Verso.

Negri, Antonio. 2014. Factory of Strategy: 33 Lessons on Lenin. Translated by Arianna Bove. New York: Columbia University Press.

Tronti, Mario. 1964. Lenin in England. [cited 10th June 2015]. Available from

Wright, Steve. 2002. Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism. London & Sterling, Virginia: Pluto Press.


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