Why “autonomous” strategies are doomed to fail

Autonomist politics are a short cut – as we can see by the experience of the German Left but also in Hamas in Palestine


I’ve already often written why I don’t regard autonomous strategies to be constructive. Here, I’m using the word “autonomous” much wider than it is generally understood. Autonomous ideas are based on the actions of a little group, which – isolated from the masses – deploys violence (and other force) against an over-powerful enemy. For me, this does not just what one today identifies with the masked autonomists, but also with “communist” groups like the RAF.

[translator’s note: the Rote Armee Fraktion / Red Army Fraction, sometimes better known as the Baader-Meinhof group, was an organisation which emerged in Germany after the decline of the 1968 movement. Despite their somewhat moralistic politics, they won the support of a significant number of German leftists. If you want to know more, see Uli Edel’s film “The Baader-Meinhof Complex”, Stefan Aust’s book of the same name, or Jillan Becker’s book “Hitler’s Children”]

As I have often stressed, I find the goals of the RAF (als part of an international anti-imperialist war at the time of the Vietnam war) to be completely legitimate. And the violence is to me benign and irrelevant compared to the violence of their enemies (who dropped more bombs on Vietnam then the whole of the Second World War, including firebombing women and children. This means that I cannot judge them morally, but I have a serious strategic criticism.

Anyone who decides to join the underground, and as a result to fight against an unassailable enemy in inevitable isolation, can never win. Even the best weaponry and education of the RAF was unable to defeat the powerful US Army – and, as became quickly clear, not even the state power of Germany. Furthermore, such autonomous strategies inevitably lead to turning away from the masses, resulting in not being able to integrate them in the movement, as an illegal group is unable to organise public stalls where they can approach normal people.

This isolation from the masses leads to a further problem. Because of the lack of feedback from the outside world, a sort of “spiritual incest” develops, in which a cadre organisation states that it is politically relevant without being able to be corrected by outsiders who report their mistakes. The result was that towards the end, the RAF developed absurd “analyses”, claiming that the German state was fascist – an assertion that many automonists hold today – through which an isolated group was able to believe that it could conquer the centralized state power. But no educated élite acting alone will be able to overthrow the capitalist state. This can only be achieved with resistance from the broad masses.

Let me go further, and extend it to groups which are not left-wing, such as the resistance against the Zionist occupation of Palestine. Exactly as with the RAF, I find the violence used by Hamas to be incomparable to that of their enemies. Palestine’s right to self-defence and resistance against occupation (including violent resistance) is covered by international law. I also find the goals of the resistance against the illegal occupation to be absolutely legitimate, even when I criticize the strategies used. Armed resistance, first from the PLO, and later from Hamas, has never achieved its goals, because even the best educated groups were never able to bring such an unbelievably militaristic, highly trained state, which was unconditionally supported by much more powerful states, to its knees,

The most recent actions of Hamas clearly show the weaknesses of their forms of action. Before the misslies were fired, there were mass mobilisations of Palestinians against the new ethnic cleansing by the Zionist colonial state in Sheikh Jarrah – that is, exactly what gives me the most hope. Hamas’s meaningless firing of missiles stabbed the mass demonstrations in the back, by driving attention away and making it easier for the Western media to talk solely about the missiles and to ignore the mass mobilisations.

Of course it is clear to me that Western politicians will always find a reason to demonise the Palestinian resistance. Even exemplary non-violent forms of action like BDS do not attract great enthusiasm (because the focus is no longer on violence but on left-wing forms of action), but on the contrary are demonised more than Hamas. But this does not change the fact that firing missiles at Israel abruptly stopped the protest and made it easier for the media to stay silent.

Injustice will never be ended by a small group – only the masses can do this. In factories with strikes, or by a reignition of the Arabic revolutions, in which democracy in Egypt offered solidarity with Palestine, and in a short period of time achieved more for Palestine than all the negotiations and resistance which came before. This resistance was drowned in blood by the mass murderer Al-Sisi, but still serves as a much better template for the liberation of Palestine.

Translation: Phil Butland