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The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Social Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life (Updated Edition)

Eric Laursen
Date Published: 
November 01, 2007

AK Press, 2006

Tony Judt, a well-regarded and reasonably liberal English academic, published a big, highly praised book two years ago entitled Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. Poring through it, I found no mention of one of the most important political-cultural developments of the past 40 years: the rise and fall and rise of what are loosely grouped together as the European autonomous social movements. How could he have missed it?

From the late 1960s, the “autonomen” and related groups played a crucial role in the anti-nuclear movement, the women's movement, environmentalism, the struggle against skinheads and other racist and quasi-fascists groups, the fight for decent housing for workers and immigrants, the movement against corporate globalization, and perhaps a dozen other major struggles. Their characteristic methods of organizing—nonhierarchical, anti-authoritarian, often centered in squats and reclaimed community centers—explicitly rejected both the capitalist state and the Soviet Communist models. This third way spawned new autonomist movements in the US, informed the anti-globalization struggle identified with Seattle in 1999, and created the space for alliances with social movements of the poor and landless in developing countries that continue to this day.

Because they don't fit neatly into the usual oppositions—West vs. East, American vs. European brands of capitalism—mainstream historians like Judt tend to slice-and-dice the autonomists, allowing parts of their story to be represented by “Paris '68,” the Red Brigades, and the anti-nuke movement. Their own story gets lost, seemingly confirming Margaret Thatcher's pronouncement that “there is no alternative” to the global capitalist monoculture that Washington and its corporate overlords are busily constructing.

Fortunately, Katsiaficas has just updated his 1997 book, The Subversion of Politics. It's still a flawed and partial telling of the social movements' story. But it brings them to life, situates them properly in their historical context, and spells out their accomplishments in detail. Anyone who wants to understand the foundations of the non-state politics that millions of activists have been practicing around the world in the decades since the autonomen's highpoint will have to read it, because it's still the only work of its kind.

Shock absorbers

How could all this have come out of “old Europe,” the “dying” culture of the post-World War II years? Katsiaficas locates the autonomen's genesis in the crisis of identity that Europeans experienced at that time, from immigration; integration into the common market, and later, the European Union; and, in the 1970’s, economic stagnation.

Philosophically, he sees the social movements stemming from personal opposition to the one-dimensional society rapidly taking the place of cultural diversity and what Habermas called the “colonization of the life-world.” And he shows how these and other circumstances drove younger activists to create new, grassroots ways of organizing that neither the state nor the Eurocommunists of the time could understand or control.

“Autonomy is the political form appropriate to postmodern societies,” Katsiaficas writes. Tactically, the social movements worked to create a new model of street-level activism that didn't fall into the traps of either narrowly defined nonviolent civil disobedience or urban terrorism. In part, this was necessary to create a common basis for action by women, youth, and minorities—increasingly, the “shock absorbers” of the new, precarious economy. But it also set the social movements apart from Germany's Green Party, which proposed to work for change from within the system, but many of whose members first became politically active in the context of the movements.

Katsiaficas doesn't ignore the problems that often tore the movements apart and which mirrored issues in the society at large: persistent sexism, racism, outbursts of violence. He criticizes the various autonomist clusters for failing to grasp how their different agendas could fit together, and for often allowing the more violent elements to take control in moments of crisis.

The downside of Katsiaficas's work is his somewhat narrow focus on the social movements in just two countries, Italy and Germany. The first was where they began, the second where they gained their most spectacular notoriety. But France, Denmark, the Netherlands, the UK, and other countries had significant movements as well, which deserve the same excellent treatment he gives the other two. And too much of his book is consumed in fighting unnecessary ideological battles. I strongly disagree with his argument that anarchism has nothing to do with the origins and development of the social movements, and with his wishful identification of them with a nebulous kind of autonomist Marxism. I could also do without the lengthy critiques of Antonio Negri and Seyla Benhabib that weigh down the later sections of the book. The space could have been better used for, say, a deeper discussion of the actual street tactics of the autonomen, which get very little attention here.

But Katsiaficas has identified and given back to us the first 20 years of a movement that's still in the midst of creating a new relationship between the individual and community. “The goal of autonomous social movements is the subversion of politics, the decolonization of everyday life and civil society, not the conquest of state power,” he writes. Mainstream historians may continue to deny their existence, but his book makes it impossible.