Friday, November 16, 2012

Fire and Flames - A History of the German Autonomist Movement

Translated by Gabriel Kuhn
PM Press, paperback

This English language translation of a book long-considered a classic of autonomism provides a good introductory history of the German scene from the tumultuous year of 1968 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But despite its strictly chronological style, it manages to feel weirdly disjointed and dispassionate, and so fails to provide much of a guide for those of us seeking to organise non-hierarchically in the twenty-first century.

As ever for books on the left, there is a blizzard of acronyms, and if you are a non-German reader then almost all will be entirely new. A glossary is provided however, and if you keep referring back to it, this isn't too much of a barrier.

Another common left problem encountered here is the slipperiness of label definitions. This even applies to the term 'autonomism' itself, with wildly different ideologies and forms of activity all coming under the same umbrella term. For some this is a strength of 'autonomism', for others a weakness, but when trying to read a book on the subject, it sometimes feels like particular activities have been shoehorned into the 'autonomist' definition simply because they are in some way anti-mainstream politics, and not 'K-groups' (of which more later).

Geronimo adopts the eight part definition adopted in Italy during 1981: "we fight for ourselves", "we do not engage in dialogue with those in power", "we have not found each other at the workplace", "we all embrace a vague anarchism", "no power to no one", difference from the "alternative movement", "we are uncertain whether we want a revolt or a revolution", "we have no organisation per se".

So vagueness and lifestylist individualism appears to be all, and yet the 'autonomists' as identified by Geronimo did organise huge events, and they did experiment with workplace organising. Focuses changed as history marched on and changes in economics drove changes in society. This mechanism lies almost entirely unexamined, accounting for much of the 'this happened, then this happened' style.

This difficulty is evident from the very beginning when Geronimo deals the year when workers and students rose in Paris, there was upheaval in Czechoslovakia, the Black Panthers battled cops in America, and 'The Troubles' began in the north of Ireland. All this took place as the post-war settlements around the world were breaking down at their first major recessionary test. Instead of looking at this, Geronimo tries to explain nearly everything in terms of US imperialism's carnage in Vietnam. Beyond the immediate trigger for action, the deeper motivations are not considered, and so any thorough analysis of autonomism - or any movement - is impossible. Still, Geronimo notes that a sizeable layer of students broke from the liberalism of the social democratic centre-left.

The next section - and in my opinion by far the most impressive part of the whole book - is actually dedicated to a very decent study of Italian autonomism. It looks at the organic composition of Italian industry, before tracing the shift from Stalinism to operaismo  ('workerism') which - in contrast to a left which now sought to integrate "the working class into capitalist development" - again sought "the complete negation of the existing system". As employers fought back by shipping out of operaist strongholds, the focus shifted to the "social field" - i.e. riots, "proletarian shopping" (organised mass looting), and the creation of a 'scene'.

And - aside from a few abortive attempts to organise factory workers - the "social field" is the only one on which Geronimo describes the various and diverse German autonome as playing on, following their formation in reaction to their own Stalinist 'Communist parties' (those K-groups again).

We are therefore given brief sketches of the rise and fall of the 'spontis' (anti-organisational individuals emphasising the 'spontaneous'), the insurrectionist Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Faction) and Revolutionäre Zellen (Revolutionary Cells) in the 1970s. And then through to anti-Reagan, anti-nuclear and mass squatting actions in the decade which was to catch the autonomen by surprise at its dramatic conclusion - the fall of the Berlin Wall.

When I put down the book for the final time, I was left with a sense that the sometimes massive numbers the autonomen pulled to their events, and the often ferocious intensity of their battles with state forces, very little had been achieved in the way of concrete gains. And this is the case whether you prefer - as I do - to talk in terms of gains or losses for contending social classes, or about individuals extending the reach of their own freedom (as do the autonomists in the 1981 Italian theses).

One prominent exception is the mass squatting of Hamburg's Hafenstrasse, which eventually led to the regional senate granting the squatters the right to stay in the buildings they had brought into use. These then became a prominent base for both a thriving counter-culture - including support of the world-famous FC St. Pauli with its unique supporter comradeship - and the autonomen's political struggles.

But apart from that - and the odd delay to this or that project of the capitalist class - it's difficult to point to much in the way of success. Of course, participants may well argue that I am being far too materialist, and the success was the emotional 'freedom' gained from taking part. Of course, that would be entirely their call. But perhaps that's almost the exact problem with the type of autonomism espoused within these one hundred and eighty five pages - it can be reduced to 'Did the individual have a good time while the world continued to burn?'

So if Geronimo wanted to show the German brand of autonomism as being a way forward for oppressed groups in the wider world - and I think he did - then Fire and Flames utterly fails to convincingly make that case. That's certainly not to say it's without merit - and as a bit of a politics geek I loved the many demonstration photos and posters included - but perhaps there is an even better book on the history of German autonomen just waiting to be written.
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