This review examines evidence that rheumatoid arthritis (RA) depends on autoimmunity to articular collagen, and mechanisms whereby autoantibodies to type II collagen contribute to disease development. Three major autoantigenic reactants have been identified in RA; the corresponding autoantibodies are rheumatoid factor (RF), antibodies to citrullinated peptide antigens (ACPA), citrullinated peptides (anti-CCP), and anti-type II collagen (anti-CII). Both RF and ACPA are well-validated and predictive markers of severe erosive RA, but cannot be linked to pathogenesis. By contrast, in various animal species immunized with CII there occurs an erosive inflammatory arthritis resembling that seen in human RA, together with antibodies to CII with an epitope specificity similar to that in RA. We discuss the well-known role of immune complexes in the induction of inflammation within the joint, and present recent data showing, additionally, that antibodies to CII cause direct damage to cartilage in vitro. The close resemblances between human RA and collagen-induced arthritis in animals suggest that autoimmunity, and particularly autoantibodies to CII, are important for both the initiation and perpetuation of RA in a dual manner: as contributors to the inflammation associated with immune complex deposition, and as agents with direct degradative effects on cartilage integrity and its repair.