An Interview with Bender, a German Comrade
by Paul O’Banion
Bender has been involved in the autonomous movement in Germany since the 1980s, and talks here about his experiences and observations from thirty years of organizing. He addresses the beginnings of the autonomen – the autonomous movement – how Antifa developed out of that in the late 80s and 90s, and has developed since. He discusses where things are now, in a post-autonomous, post-antifa, German radical Left environment. He is familiar with the situation in the US, and offers lessons for organizing against fascism and all forms of domination. This interview was conducted via email, and Bender’s answers have been edited for clarity.
Talk about the autonomen: who you are, what political traditions and perspectives are you building on, and what has been your practical and theoretical activity.
Bender: When we talk about “the autonomen,” we speak of the 80s in Germany where the autonomen first appeared and had the character of a movement. It is one outcome of the dynamics of the so-called New Social Movements or, as you call it in the US, the New Left.
As in many other countries, the beginnings of the New Social Movements, from which the autonomous movement of the 80s was one result, was “the long year of ’68,” which in Germany is perhaps best characterised as an “anti-authoritarian revolt.” We have to remember, that the year ‘68 politically lasted much longer than one year. The movement after ‘68 reached a kind of exhaustion, in which people asked themselves how to go on, which means: how to organize a movement in decline.
After ‘68 was the “moment of the movement,” then the 70s developed along the more Party-orientated trajectory. The 70s were the decade of the so-called “K-groups.” The K-Groups were various communist groups with, in some cases, a lot of members, and in all cases – no matter how big they actually were – the aim to become a mass party. It was like the last episode of the history of Communist Parties. But whereas the first episode ended in the tragedy of the Soviet Party-State, this time it ended as the farce of communist groups run by students with nearly no impact on the working-class. But what they did have was much influence on new forms of politics and new political issues, not only those based around labor and the working-class.
But just as the student movement in the end of the 60s went into crisis and transformed itself in the decade of the communist groups, these K-groups in the end of the 70s also went into crisis. This situation split into two different ways of organizing (even if at the beginning both methods walked a short time together): the Green Party on the one hand, the autonomous movement on the other.
We see with the Green Party and the autonomous movement again the two poles, Party on one side; self-organizing, networking and an explicit politics against all kinds of state-apparatus and state-institutions on the other.
The autonomous movement of the 80s in Germany, like the radical and anarchist Left in the US, was organized around squatted houses, autonomous and self-organized youth-centers and an independent, non-commercial infrastructure with info-shops, leftist books-stores, sub-cultural spaces and so on. The model of politics was more the general assembly plenum and consensus decision-making, than decision by voting and by majority rule. Politics functioned more by events and campaigns than by following a program or a theory. The movement was more interested in practical action than in theoretical debates, and it was in general more a kind of life-style than an organized and well-reflected intervention in the political discourse like happens nowadays.
The autonomous style of politics was not only on the level of organisation the pioneer of what is today popular non-hierarchical, non-dogmatic and project-based networking (maybe we must call these kind of organisation post-Fordist or even neo-liberal?), but also the themes and issues of struggle were somewhat decentralized and widespread: anti-war, anti-nuclear, squatting, and the struggle for autonomous free-spaces, punk-music and independent labels, anti-imperialism and solidarity work for the political prisoners and so on. During the 80s, there was still something like a Left hegemony amongst youth (since the autonomous movement was mostly a youth-movement and had a lot to do with subculture and an alternative lifestyle).