riots in greece – the “swan song” of autonomism?

This discussion article by Dan Jakopovich puts forward a controversial take on the riots in Greece

On the wings of Seattle, the Zapatista rebellion in the Mexican state of Chiapas and other heights of the so-called “anti-globalisation” (or, more precisely, “alter-globalisation”) movement, by virtue of the failure of the bureaucratic path to socialism, the end of the last century and the beginning of the 21st century witnessed a growth in the popularity of “autonomism”, a more or less crystallised ideology according to which the successful struggle against capitalism presupposes turning one’s back on existing political institutions – the state, parties and elections, as if they will disappear if we ignore them.

Although many of those who participated in the Greek protests and occupations would not identify with this autonomist or anarchist strategy, in the Greek events it is nonetheless possible to clearly observe the autonomist assumptions in the power of “direct action”, independently from the existing balance of political and class forces, independently from the strength of the left-wing parties and independently from their election results.

In other words, many in Greece and the world nurtured the hope that it was possible not only to overthrow the Greek centre-right government, but also to tear down capitalism, although the anti-capitalist Greek parties – the semi-Stalinist Communist Party of Greece and the socialist coalition SYRIZA, despite very significant recent electoral advances – are far too weak to assume governmental power. But the autonomists do not want that since – despite the historical experience – they believe that there is a possibility of circumventing the existing political institutions and electoral strategy in developed multi-party systems. These are well-intentioned illusions. Even on Iceland, where the financial crisis and protests recently led to the downfall of the neo-con government, the power was taken over by the Social Democratic Party and the eco-socialist Left-Green Movement party.

Although political institutions should not gain control over social movements, participation in these institutions is essential for the growth and development of mass ideological and material counter-hegemony, i.e. for the development of mass support of the population and financial and infrastructural power, and the political influence necessary for confronting the powers of big business and the Right. Naturally, such participation in political institutions must be based on firm principles: consistent democracy and struggle against elitism, formalised forms of control over parliamentary representatives and other politicians by the party base, and responsibility towards the social movements and the wider population. Yet again since May ‘68 in France (the relative failure of which was largely based upon the lack of a sufficiently strong left-wing party with the desire and ability to adequately support the demands of the movement), the recent Greek events show once more the inability of the autonomist strategy to create any lasting mass counter-hegemony at all.


If the army had waged an open war against “street warriors”, it would have been able to sweep them away in a day or two. In any case, I do not wish to equate these two cases but it is indicative that the only thing that the French wave of riots in 2005 actually brought were increased xenophobia, anti-immigrant and rightist propaganda, and the clear victory of the (then) rigid neoliberal “policeman” Sarkozy.

In truth, it is necessary to admit that ordinary vandals, as well as ultra-Right groups, partially usurped the student and worker demonstrations in France. A similar thing occurred in Greece, where it was even documented that the police forces and rightist groups had conspired on campaigns of destruction, for which they then blamed left-wing youth. (This paradigm has already been seen, particularly in the wake of the alter-globalistic demonstrations at the beginning of this century.) Nonetheless, some ultra-left groups assumed a positive, or at least ambivalent, attitude towards vandalism and the “tyranny of structurelessness”, frequently characteristic of the anarchist style of organization, thereby contributing to the creation of an organizational vacuum which made it possible for undemocratic and irresponsible activities, and even the direct sabotage of student protests and occupations, to become equated with the student movement itself. In the absence of clear demands, organization and coordination of one part of the movement, the protestors quickly wore themselves out and their rebellious initiatives were shown to be only one in a series of “radical” – soap bubbles.

It is essential, meanwhile, to emphasize that there is significant common ground between autonomist and progressive and realistic left-socialist (party) strategies, e.g. regarding the commitment for participatory democracy and a certain organisational “horizontalism”, regarding an understanding of the importance of grassroots movements and democratic self-organisation. Moreover, profound changes are not possible without the mobilisation of the citizens themselves, and a bureaucratic path would alienate the most conscious and most combative parts of the population.

Yet the autonomist and anarchist underestimation of the significance of the real level of mass consciousness, the need to work through coherent left-wing parties, as well as of the need to accumulate public support and material strength through elections, and to minimise the chances that the army and police react aggressively – this neglect is disastrous.

“Facts are stubborn things,” goes the saying. Despite these abortive attempts, numerous European initiatives for the creation of broad and combative left-wing parties are showing far more serious results, considerable magnitude, and already a certain stability. Once again, the spectre of creative dissent is beginning to haunt Europe.

6 thoughts on “riots in greece – the “swan song” of autonomism?

  1. Well, I guess it is “controversial” in that it is more critical of the riots/their chances of success than many/most others on the radical left would be.

    I don’t think Dan calls himself a Leninist or a Trotskyist. He submitted the article for The Commune, and we’re not afraid to have stuff on the site which we disagree with or which puts forward an alternative point of view, whether that be anarchist (for example, the recent Venezuela stuff by Charles Reeve) or by people from a Trot background. We can have the argument.

    For what it’s worth, I think Dan is right to point out that you can’t ignore existing institutions and that you can use elections to win some degree of political space/influence. In this sense the autonomists are broadly wrong – you may well have to use many diffuse tactics to gradually build a movement or organisations, or they will be spirited away, and it is no ‘principle’ to say nothing about electoral candidates, (similarly: no more than you should refuse to stand in union elections because we’re against trade union bureaucracy…)

    However, I think Dan is mistaken to pose the question of elections and institutions quite so centrally, and also think that “the left”, which really means establishment social-democrat/state-capitalist parties, winning governmental power is not something we should particularly aim for, since even if it brings ameliorative reforms it of course means governmental power within the existing/bourgeois state apparatus and always does mean the co-option of radical/social movements into this apparatus and thus demobilisation. The far left should never go into government, even as a coalition partner, it does mean being shackled to things like bourgeois budgeting.

    I think parties like Die Linke, Rifondazione, etc. have all shown this when going into coalition governments with social democrats, only to capitulate to the agenda of the latter. Die Linke opposed transport strikes in Berlin and Rifondazione didn’t even vote to get the troops out of Afghanistan, for the sake of keeping the establishment ‘left’ in power.

    So yes, even big ‘riots’ movements can quickly dissipate and might benefit from more organisation. But that doesn’t mean that such organisations have to be electoral machines or limit themselves to the parliamentary arena, and they should be wary about what the latter might to do them.


  2. Hi Autonomist. I – and I guess, we – would be interested in an autonomist take on events. In particular, why do you think it didn’t go further? What sorts of activity would have allowed it to do so, or may do next time?

    I’m not sure if autonome really has ever developed a real politics of revolution. Maybe these events will prompt some consideration of that.

    I’m not sure about what David says about refusing to ever ‘go into government’ as a matter of principle – though I think going in as a coalition partner would be a terrible idea. I mean, if you get a majority (massively unlikely, but in principle), why not go for it, disband the army, police, etc, and let the grassroots take it from there? I don’t think people would have much motivation to vote for a party which would never make use of a majority…. why bother voting at all in that case?

    At some point one of us should write something specifically defending electoral activity on libertarian socialist grounds, since our position is a bit of an oddity, I think…


  3. “At some point one of us should write something specifically defending electoral activity on libertarian socialist grounds, since our position is a bit of an oddity, I think…” You mean more than the tons of papers Bookchin cs. already filled with words about this?

    The original article is of very poor quality because it only states a lot of enormities, without giving any examples or proof, then suggests that most of the violence at recent insurgencies was in fact provoked by fascists or police. It is a clear example of forcing all your arguments to fit your conclusions, but they do not have much to do with reality. It is clear that the fact that so many people in Greece not only joined the protestors but also took real action, had to do with anarchist or autonomous inspiration, built up with years of ‘showing what your worth’. More effective than al this ultra leftist proselitism. If it creates a qualitatively different situation is another question, but then years and years of parliamentarist left in Europe surely didn’t.


  4. Kees,

    Bookchin was only in favour of standing in local elections wasn’t he? And, anyway, I suspect the reasons some of us have might be different than his – certainly his are very different from those of the SLP etc (see a later post), so if nothing else it would be worth appraising them together (

    And I’m not convinced that the Greek events were a demonstration of anarchist and autonomist inspiration. Check these out.


  5. I think the article is very correct in pointing to the impossibility of achieving mass support in this way. Where do these things lead? These “”insurrections”” are mostly masturbation if you ask me.


Comments are closed.