“Communization” is a theoretical current that emerged from the French ultraleft after 1968. Gilles Dauvé is usually credited with coining the term according to its contemporary use in his 1972 essay on “Capitalism and Communism” (though interestingly, a cognate appeared in English as early as 1849 in the journal of the British Owenite Goodwyn Barmby, The Promethean). Later in that decade, the editorial collective Théorie Communiste expanded on the notion in attempting to theorize “communism in the present tense.” It became the linchpin of their more process-oriented vision of how to transcend capitalism. Rather than positing communism as some sort of end-goal or a final state to be achieved after an indefinite period of transition, communization understands itself as an ongoing state of movement or flux. Or, as Léon de Mattis explains, communization involves “the overcoming of all existing conditions can only come from a phase of intense and insurrectionist struggle during which the forms of struggle and the forms of future life will take flesh in one and the same process.”
A number of articles by Gilles Dauvé, Karl Nesic, Bruno Astarian, and other members of the group Troploin have been translated into English, along with pieces by Roland Simon, Bernard Lyon, Léon de Mattis, and other members of the groups Blaumachen or Théorie Communiste. Perhaps the best work on communization to appear in English to date, however, is the original material put out by Endnotes, which formed in 2008 after a polemic between British publication Aufheben and Théorie Communiste. Moreover, the transatlantic periodical Sic then coalesced in 2011, publishing its second and final issue in 2014. (The journal has since become defunct, reportedly as the result of disagreements over the overly “academic” interest in the theory displayed by the American wing compared with fogies meeting in forests back in France. Not to mention the shitstorm that ensued once it was discovered that Woland, one of Sic’s contributors, had become a high-level functionary for Syriza in Greece. Dialectical Delinquents first blogged about it back in April of 2015, eliciting a series of responses and recriminations).
You can download full-text PDFs of the following communization texts by clicking below:
- Gilles Dauvé and François Martin, The Eclipse and Reemergence of the Communist Movement (1997, 2015)
- Gilles Dauvé, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Autonomy (2008)
- Benjamin Noys, ed., Communization and Its Discontents (2011)
- Bruno Astarian, Gilles Dauvé, Jean Barrot, Everything Must Go! The Abolition of Value (2016)
- Endnotes 1: Preliminary Materials for a Balance Sheet of the Twentieth Century (October 2008)
- Endnotes 2: Misery and the Value-Form (April 2010)
- Endnotes 3: Gender, Race, Class, and Other Misfortunes (September 2013)
- Endnotes 4: Unity in Separation (December 2015)
- Sic: International Journal for Communization, Volume 1 (November 2011)
- Sic: International Journal for Communization, Volume 2 (January 2014)
I have numerous objections to the various strands of communization theory, though I find the problems it’s raised to be important. These may be briefly enumerated.
First of all, I am not convinced that the notion of a “transitional period” is so problematic that it must be done away with altogether. Marx maintained in his “Critique of the Gotha Program” (1875) that “between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” Seizure of state power, whether first “smashed” or left relatively intact, is anathema to the communizers. Engels’ quip about the exiled Blanquist communards also comes to mind: “These thirty-three are communists because they imagine that, as soon as they have only the good will to jump over intermediate stations and compromises, everything is assured, and if, as they firmly believe, it ‘begins’ in a day or two, and they take the helm, ‘communism will be introduced’ the day after tomorrow. And they are not communists if this cannot be done immediately. What childish naïveté to advance impatience as a convincing theoretical argument!”
Second, I do not accept the premise, advanced by both Endnotes and Théorie Communiste, that “programmatism” is dead and gone. “Programmatism” broadly refers to the era of working-class political programs, socialist parties and syndicalist unions, in which individuals’ status as producers was affirmed. All claims to political legitimacy were thought to flow from this fact. Though they differ somewhat on the dates that bookend this periodization, the two journals share the same general conclusion that this era is at an end. Joshua Clover and Aaron Benanav summed it up succinctly in a 2014 article, “Can Dialectics Break BRICs?”:
The collective experience of work and life that gave rise to the vanguard party during the era of industrialization has passed away with industrialization itself. We recognize as materialists that the capital-labor relation that made such a party effective — not only as idea but as reality — is no longer operative. A changed capital-labor relation will give rise to new forms of organization. We should not criticize present-day struggles in the name of idealized reconstructions from the past. Rather, we should describe the communist potential that presents itself immanently in the limits confronted by today’s struggles.
Richard Rubin of Platypus raised some points back in 2013 with which I still for the most part agree. While Endnotes’ appraisal of the political impotence of the Left in the present is similar to that of the Platypus, Benanav contended that the latter’s analysis did not penetrate down to the hard underlying realities that explain why this is the case. By remaining at the level of ideas, focusing on ideological regressions and the dialectics of defeat, Platypus failed to see the changed socioeconomic conditions that lie beneath. “Failing to see this material basis for the death of the Left, Platypus is helpless to describe the character of class struggle over the last decade and a half,” Benanav argued. “Their perspective completely covers over the real gap that separates the present from the past. Workers are only able to find a common interest diluted through the extraversion of class belonging into some other weakened form of an affirmable share of existence.” Eventually, Rubin countered. “It is true in a certain sense that the conditions for revolution emerge from struggle, but there are many different forms of struggle. People do not always come to the conclusion that they should struggle, and even then they often struggle in unpropitious ways.”
Unlike Endnotes, I believe the socialist workers’ movement remains the unsurpassable horizon through which alone capitalism can be overcome. If these older modalities of struggle no longer have any real purchase on the world, then it is not just a particular form of politics that has seen its last but rather politics itself. Lenin once remarked that politics proper only begins once you start counting in the millions: “As long as it was (and inasmuch as it still is) a question of winning the proletariat’s vanguard over to the side of communism, priority went and still goes to propaganda work; even propaganda circles, with all their parochial limitations, are useful under these conditions, and produce good results. But when it is a question of practical action by the masses, of the disposition, if one may so put it, of vast armies, of the alignment of all the class forces in a given society for the final and decisive battle, then propagandist methods alone, the mere repetition of the truths of ‘pure’ communism, are of no avail. In these circumstances, one must not count in thousands, like the propagandist belonging to a small group that has not yet given leadership to the masses; in these circumstances one must count in millions and tens of millions.”
Some further objections with which I generally concur were made by Donald Parkinson already more than a year ago. Other points of contention are fleshed out in the piece below, by some German comrades in Kosmoprolet. Endnotes translated this piece last year, to ventriloquize their “frustration with the way [communization] has become associated with a new theoretical brand and/or radical identity.” It’s a great piece.
This text was originally published in the Friends’ journal Kosmoprolet as a response to Théorie Communiste’s critique of the Friends’ 28 Theses on Class Society. A translation of Théorie Communiste’s original critique can be found here.
In the 1970s, somebody in France invented the word communization in order to express a fairly simple, but important idea: the proletarian revolution is not the self-realization of the proletariat, but its self-abolition. This idea is nothing new, for it can already be found in a polemical work from 1845.1 However, it never played a strong role in the labor movement, signifying at best the horizon of a distant future. Rather, the conquest of political power by the proletariat topped the agenda. In the subsequent transitional socialist society, which was still to be dominated by commodity production and the strict measurement of the individual share of social wealth, the proletariat would lay the foundations for communism as a classless society in which there would be no more wage system and, indeed, no more proletariat. The term communization expresses the obsolescence of this notion. According to the proponents of communization, communism is not a distant goal, but the movement itself which eliminates all exchange relations as well as the state. As is apparent from our 28 Theses on Class Society, we share this perspective, although we do so, according to a French theory circle, in a fashion that is halfhearted, and ultimately bound to the “affirmation of the proletariat.”2 It is this we seek to examine below.
What is characteristic for the journal Théorie Communiste — which emerged in the 1970s from the council communist milieu and for some time has been the subject of heated debate among circles scattered across the globe — is that they seek to historicize the perspective of communization. For Théorie Communiste, it was not only the hegemonic currents of the old labor movement — Western Reformism and Bolshevism — but also the radical left dissidents up to the 1970s that relied on the notion of a positive workers’ identity. What unites these currents and their understanding of communism, according to Théorie Communiste, is that they posited labor as the defining principle of the new society. Importantly, Théorie Communiste also includes self-organization and workers’ autonomy as propagated by radicals in the past within this perspective, labeling it all “programmatism.” This is how the Situationist International comes to be seen as a phenomenon of historical transition: while going beyond the constraints of “programmatism” by promoting the self-abolition of the proletariat, the S.I. was at the same time bound to an epoch in decline by seeking to accomplish this self-abolition by means of workers’ councils. It was only with the restructuring of the 1970s — roughly everything that is today described as precarity, Post-Fordism, neoliberalism, globalization, and which Théorie Communiste designates as the “second phase of the real subsumption” — that this phase of the class contradiction comes to an end. Only with the disappearance of any positive worker identity, the real abolition of the capital relation becomes conceivable. Théorie Communiste does not claim that earlier revolutionaries made “mistakes”; rather they argue that earlier ideas of revolution and communism were adequate for the shape of the contradiction between capital and the proletariat at the time, but are no longer adequate today. Today, the accumulation of capital and the reproduction of the working class are growing apart; the proletarian class no longer finds confirmation in capitalist development; from its struggles it becomes evident that it is nothing outside of the capital relation; its very being as a class is no longer anything but an external constraint. For the first time, this opens up the possibility of the self-abolition of the proletariat.
Friends of communization have been fighting over this historicization for years. The most obvious counterposition comes from Gilles Dauvé and Karl Nesic: “Of course the realization of communism depends on the historical moment, but its deep content remains invariant in 1796 and in 2002. If the ‘nature’ of the proletariat is to be taken as Marx summarized it theoretically, then the subversive moment in proletarian existence does not depend on the successive forms which the course of capitalist development assumes.”3 Dauvé and Nesic accuse Théorie Communiste of determinism; Théorie Communiste accuses Dauvé and Nesic of lacking historical perspective.4
And we too are criticized for such a lack. It is true that in one passage of the Theses, we speak about the revolution and the miserable conditions it encountered in Russia in 1917, and it is true that we write, “that class struggles could have had different outcomes.” However, instead of speculating about this outcome, we continue: “But the view of history is inevitably conditioned by its further progression, in which the dialectic of repression and emancipation has not ceased.” The whole text is a plea against nostalgia, which should already be evident from the fact that we characterize the most advanced communist blueprint of the time, namely that of the council communists, as the “self-management of commodity production”; the abolition of commodity production only came into view around 1968, simply due to the “higher level of capitalist socialization, which can directly” — without a socialist transitional phase of blood, sweat, and tears — “turn over into communism.” In the same unambiguous vein, we comment on Marx’s program of state power conquest: “That’s all history now.” When Théorie Communiste mocks our linking of the very Canne-Meijer whose labor vouchers we object to with communization, they overlook the fact that we emphasize only a certain quite modern thought of Canne-Meijer’s, namely that in the struggles themselves — and not after a successful conquest of power — new social relations emerge. In short, if Théorie Communiste reads into a text about the historical change of class society and the attempts to overcome it, a “consistent essence of the revolution”; if they discover a romanticization of workers’ autonomy of the 1960s and 1970s, despite the fact that we term it the “real movement of the wage-laborers,” which wanted “if not everything, then at least more wages and less work” and that their “autonomy… meant wildcat strikes — or striking with the union, but without regard for losses”; if they represent our leitmotif as the “contradiction between self-organization and substitutionism” although we ourselves criticize such an opposition as “a certain mythology of the radical left” — then they completely miss our point.
The real differences lie elsewhere. They concern the concept of production, the character of today’s class struggles, and the relationship between theory and struggles. We will try to clarify our thoughts on this and to show why, for us, the positions of Théorie Communiste seem closely built on obscurantism.
On the production of communism
Hardly a thought in Marx’s theory is considered more objectionable today than that of labor as an “eternal natural necessity.” Against the historical background of state socialism and the communist parties in the West, in which the working class was driven to increased drudgery, this idea is read as an apology for the status quo: one cannot rebel against natural necessity. Over the last few decades, therefore, the “critique of labor” in its different and sometimes conflicting versions gained substantial ground. For the most part, however, this critique goes in circles, leading one to conclude that Marx’s critique of political economy itself contains the most reasonable critique of labor, or in other words, that the existing form of labor itself is its most radical critic. Marx’s supposedly objectionable formula is not a naturalization of social relations, but, on the contrary, first makes such relations intelligible. Marx criticizes labor in the sense that he makes distinctive the dual character of commodity-producing labor which posits use-value as well as exchange-value. He took this as the “pivot”5 of the critique of political economy because therein all the contradictions of the existing mode of production originate in embryonic form.
The socialist labor movement did not target the dual character of labor, but campaigned against the “contradiction between social production and private appropriation.” The scandal from which it emerged was the glaring opposition between the working poor and non-working rich. If the bourgeois had scandalized the parasitic feudal gentry by demanding that wealth ought to be the fruit of labor, it was now the socialist labor movement that mobilized this very maxim against bourgeois society itself. Its criticism was directed against the capitalists who lived off the work of others and its socialism was to realize the bourgeois principle of merit: “From each according to his abilities — to each according to his performance.” Despite the misery that the factory system bestowed upon the workers, large-scale industry appeared to be a tremendous advance over premodern forms of production. It was merely in the wrong hands and had to be wrested away from the self-serving capitalists in order to be applied for the common good under the auspices of the state. While the labor movement objected to the concrete shape of the labor process, it never targeted the social form of commodity-producing labor as such; rather it was to be managed consciously by the state. In this respect, state socialism in the East was the legitimate child of the labor movement, and consequently their critique was — as particularly evident within Trotskyism — aimed almost exclusively at its political despotism and its fall behind democratic civil liberties, but almost never at the nature of its economy.
The labor movement did not advocate a world of labor out of enthusiasm for the drudgery, but out of simple necessity. Technical progress and the extension of the obligation to work to all members of society were supposed to shorten the working day. Left social historians have rightly insisted that class struggle and the workers’ movement — the conduct of the workers and the official programs of their organizations — were two very different animals. The gap between labor leaders who call for increasing production and workers who want to escape work wherever possible can be seen from the nineteenth century through the Spanish Civil War up to socialist Chile under Salvador Allende. But society as a whole couldnot escape work, and if the workers were for a different society, labor would necessarily still be at its core.
This was true even for the dissidents. In its 1920 program, the ultra-left KAPD called for the “ruthless enforcement of the obligation to work,”6 and while state socialism praised its own “conscious application of the law of value,” the council communists tried to prove in an extensive written account that the socially-necessary labor time which the law of value is based upon could also be calculated by the associated producers themselves in order to overcome market relations. “In its essence, therefore, the social revolution is nothing more than the introduction of the labor-hour as the unit measure regulating and controlling the whole of economic life. It serves as the measure in production and, simultaneously, the right of the producers to their share in the social product is measured through its instrumentality.”7 This last point was particularly important to the authors. Even after May ’68, French ultra-leftists presented such techniques of measurement as a principle of the future.8
It is significant that Paul Mattick, former member of the KAPD, referred to this idea as “weak” forty years later in an introduction to the publication. The council communists of the 1930s outlined “a phase of socialist development within which the principle of the exchange of equivalents still prevails.” Mattick counters this raw socialist egalitarianism with Marx: “The abolition of calculation based on labor time for distribution,” results in “the realization of the communist principle: ‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.’ In the advanced capitalist countries…the social forces of production are sufficiently developed to produce means of consumption in overabundance. More than half of all capitalist production as well as the unproductive activities associated with it (totally disregarding the productive forces which are not exploited) surely have nothing to do with real human consumption, but only make sense in the irrational economy of capitalist society. It is clear, then, that under the conditions of a communist economy, so many consumption goods could be produced that any calculation of their individual shares of average socially necessary labor time would be superfluous.”9
As with every attempt at historical periodization, in this case no precise date can be given for when that point had been reached. However, looking back at over two hundred years of communist theory, it can be stated that what Marx, starting from the historical tendencies of the capitalist mode of production “in its ideal average,” described as a distant future, appeared to be a tangible possibility sometime after the Second World War: the abolition of commodity production and a complete transformation of the material life process of society. Loren Goldner described this period as the “Grundrisse phase of capitalism,” in which scientific work that brings with it automation, among other things, is directly appropriated by capital.10 Against this background, Herbert Marcuse in 1967 speculated about whether Marx’s distinction between the realm of freedom and the realm of necessity was anachronistic, if the opportunity was not given to “let the realm of freedom appear within the realm of necessity — in labor and not only beyond necessary labor.” The tendency anticipated in the Grundrisse to reduce physical labor to the minimum enabled a free society in which “play, with the potentialities of human and nonhuman nature, would become the content of social labor.” By contemplating “the convergence of technology and art and the convergence of work and play,” Marcuse pointed to a tradition of the critique of labor that goes back to German Idealism and to Charles Fourier and Paul Lafargue. Given the state of the development of the productive forces at that time, however, it comes as no surprise that this critique fell largely on deaf ears among the labor movement and was confined to the role of its utopian, idealistic accompanying music well into the twentieth century. As a materialist, Marcuse rejected “a romantic regression behind technology.” Rather, he argues that “the potential liberating blessings of technology and industrialization will not even begin to be real and visible until capitalist industrialization and capitalist technology have been done away with.”11
The limit of freedom, of play, is demarcated by external nature, which cannot be transformed at will, because purposeful human activity must adapt to nature as an objective, external given. By calling labor “productive activity,” one has only changed the name, not altered the thing itself. Marcuse’s ideas are materialist insofar as the possibility of reconciliation between work and play, between purposeful and free activity, is derived from nothing other than the results of the domination of nature as it evolved under the whip of capital. He does this with great caution when he maintains, “that labor as such cannot be abolished,” although it can be very different from its present form, so that “the convergence of labor and play does not divulge too far from the possibilities.”12 When we write in the Theses that revolution would not dissolve the realm of necessity “in nothing other than play and pleasure,” it is a reminder of the limits that the attempt at such dissolution will repeatedly encounter. It is a recognition of nature and the necessity for mediation with it. Thus caution is warranted with respect to a critique of labor that scandalizes the fact that labor is not a purpose in itself but rather relates to an external one.
In contrast to the speculation about the reconcilability or irreconcilability between work and play in the future, the critique of the social form of labor is a matter of the here and now. The historical distance to the socialist labor movement can also be characterized in such a way that it not the “contradiction between social production and private appropriation,” but the contradiction in commodity-producing labor itself — between wealth creation and valorization that needs to be resolved. Théorie Communiste apparently has no concept of this contradiction, because they do not comprehend the existing form of labor and thus the category of value. Our characterization of this form as one which is socially-unsocial is misunderstood and dismissed as a reprise of the “philosophical communism of the 1840s”: “One must make clear that labor as a producer of value, more precisely, as valorization of capital, as well as a division of labor as a commodity production is social. This socialization need not correspond to any ‘real sociality’ in order to appear as contradictory, rather the contradiction lies between the classes.” To play out the contradiction between classes against the one inherent within commodity-producing labor misses the decisive point.
Classes, surplus labor, and exploitation are ancient. What lends the modern class relation its dynamic and explosive power is the fact that proletarians produce wealth in a form that is contradictory and crisis-ridden and thus bears the potential to transcend contemporary social relations: increasing material wealth is not the same as increasing value.13 What differentiates the modern wage laborer from slaves or serfs is that she consistently risks making herself superfluous through her labor. These contradictions are present in the commodity in embryonic form and so commodity-producing labor is only social in the banal sense, in which all work, apart from the Robinsonades of the political economists, is social. What is specific about it is this: “Articles of utility become commodities, only because they are products of the labor of private individuals or groups of individuals who carry on their work independently of each other. The sum-total of the labor of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labor of society…the specific social character of each producer’s labor does not show itself except in the act of exchange. In other words, the labor of the individual asserts itself as a part of the labor of society only by means of the relations which the act of exchange establishes directly between the products, and indirectly, through them, between the producers. To the latter, therefore, the relations connecting the labor of one individual with that of the rest appear not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things.”14 Given this, Théorie Communiste turns the matter on its head when they reject the socialization of labor and of the means of production as the “Alpha and Omega of the affirmation of the proletariat.” If the proletariat is the class that is separated from the means of production, reduced to the bare subjectivity of a labor reservoir, only able to survive by selling its living-time to capital, then its self-abolition consists of nothing other than taking possession of this means of production.
It seems to us that Théorie Communiste has abandoned every materialist conception of production, a move which results in a strange juxtaposition of nihilism and romanticism: nihilism vis-à-vis today’s world and romanticism vis-à-vis communism. Communism is no longer the determinate negation of society, but a total miracle. Théorie Communiste paraphrases our position “that ‘necessity’ produces class society, and not the other way around,” but finds this incomprehensible, as if it is a somewhat aberrant idea that the historical origin of the class division was the impulse to shift the natural necessity of labor onto others. This is because nature has no place in Théorie Communiste’s thinking. Labor is not taken as a mediator between man and nature, which always takes a particular social form, but only as a social relation: “Production is presented [in the 28 Theses] as a bothersome necessity, but still neutral and objective, performed by an equally neutral and objective activity — labor. It is only necessary to reduce this curse. Yet labor presents a social relationship, much like the forces of production. The aim is not its reduction, but its abolition.” That this abolition, which amounts to a renaming of labor as “productive activity” and its “becoming passionate,” is perhaps not immediately possible, is acknowledged in a brief moment of sobriety and then immediately withdrawn: “Maybe the productive activities as a whole will not become passionate ‘overnight,’ but certainly communism is not conceivable as a juxtaposition of two different spheres. It is impossible that in communism some activities continue to be dispassionate, while others will have shed this character.” These two sentences contradict each other in such a blatant way that they result in a squaring of the circle. The result is wishful thinking and arbitrary decrees. The irony — the aforementioned circle in which today’s “critique of labor” moves — is that to speak of a “becoming passionate” of all “productive activities” describes nothing other than a condition in which “labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want,”15 a phrase that terrifies friends of communization. Language games of this type, the core of today’s “critique of labor,” lead straight into hopeless terminological confusion.
As far as the spheres are concerned, the end of their separation follows from that of wage labor. The boundary between the economy, a sphere subjected to blind laws, and all other spheres of life coincides with the boundary between wage labor and leisure. If the proletarians abolish wage labor and hence themselves as a class, by taking possession of the means of production of their lives, the economy as a distinct sphere would disappear; similar to the reabsorption of the state by society, of which Marx speaks somewhere, one could also speak of a reabsorption of the economy by society. That is what we meant by the phrase that the realm of necessity would not “persist in its current abstract opposition to a realm of freedom emptied of any possibility for shaping the world.” If Marx in a classic passage envisions a “shortening of the working day,” this is misleading insofar as it implies the persistence of two clearly distinct areas, thus almost giving the impression that in communism there will still be punch clocks. The weakness of Théorie Communiste and many others, it seems to us, is that they can take the opposite position (for the abolition of punch clocks) only based on the false promise of a “becoming passionate” of all productive activities and thus paint communism in a rather naive or infantile manner as pure pleasure and fun, which it will certainly not be. This position is merely the mirror image of the notoriously bourgeois ideology which, out of the inevitable inconveniences of life, derives the inevitability of domination and coercion. Freely associated individuals will have to deal with bothersome necessities; how they will do so we do not know, but we are confident that the commune will not fail over the question of who’s going to clean the loo tomorrow. And as long as there are bothersome necessities to deal with, the “economy of time” (Marx) will of course remain relevant; it is hard to see why for example the production of coffee cups has to be “passionate,” instead of completing it with a minimum expenditure of time. The point would be to have the freedom to organize these things according to discretion and corresponding to the needs and abilities of all, though the magnitude of the task should not be underestimated and certainly requires planning (a word which arouses suspicion of Stalinism among most communizers, though they of course cannot specify how several billions of interdependent individuals should be able to organize their lives without planning).
On the other hand, Théorie Communiste bans from theory what is not mere wishful thinking, but a real contradiction of the present — the contradiction between wealth-creation and valorization. The inability to grasp the capitalist mode of production as a specific social form of appropriation of nature leads to the fantasy of a communism unburdened by materiality: “If there is renewed hope in the recognition of ‘idleness,’ then it is based on the development of ‘productivity’ (Thesis 21). Is this to be understood in that the latter must be maintained to allow for the former?” Yes, it is. How could it be otherwise? The mystery of how idleness is possible without productivity dissolves to the effect that the vile “having” in communism is not a concern here, because it has to do with something higher: “It is important to clearly emphasize, that the possibility of surplus does not enable communism, but that the production of communism determines the surplus — not quantitatively, but socially, in that it transforms the production of the relations between individuals as individuals into the center and purpose of all activities. By transcending the category of having, communism gives wealth, which can no longer be measured, a completely different meaning.” “The surplus created through the communist revolution is not of the order of having, but of being together, of community.” In order to be together in bare communities, however, one does not have to assume the wager of communist revolution; this fortune already exists today.
We quote these passages in such detail, because they do not concern any secondary aspect, but rather the central question of the relationship between the free society and the existing one. If something is important in the debate over “communization,” then it is to raise again the question of the possible outcome of class struggles, instead of merely describing them in indiscriminate strike reports. And if there is something right in it, then it is the insistence that this outcome can only be the end of the proletariat, not its triumph. The cited passages reveal, however, a failure that characterizes current radicals far beyond Théorie Communiste. If the socialism of the workers’ movement was little more than the perpetuation of the existing order under state control, then today’s radicalism is often mere pseudo-radicalism, because it can no longer decipher the potentials for another society in the existing one.16 The result is a kind of inverted fetishism: What the political economists do as intentional apology is here done as apparent denunciation. Just as from the narrow-minded perspective of political economy any means of production is by nature capital and labor can only take the form of wage-labor, so also do most communizers conflate the specific social form of the production process with its material shape. Burning down factories and other buildings is hence seen as the highest expression of revolutionary subjectivity, as was most beautifully shown by Greek Théorie Communiste followers who declared the recent London riots to be a “historical milestone” and presented the burning of factories by striking workers in Bangladesh as a way of “attacking their own existence as proletarians.”17 Even the simple counting of the items that proletarians loot and freely distribute in the course of an uprising is seen by some communizers as an original sin since the point is to realize “the absolute anti-planning.”18 Théorie Communiste insists that the revolutionary rupture can only arise from class struggle, the content of this rupture remains mystical: “The abolition of classes also means the abolition of activity as subjectivity as well as of its product as objectivity facing it… The de-objectification of the world unfolds in the movement of the revolution itself.” Instead of criticizing the social forms of activity and product (wage-labor and the commodity), activity and product as such are condemned; instead of criticizing the bare subjectivity of the wage laborer and the objectivity of capital confronting him as an alien power, war is declared on subjectivity and objectivity as such, as if the history of humanity stepping out of nature could be revoked short of the extinction of humankind itself. The critical content of formulas such as “de-objectification of the world” and “abolition of activity as subjectivity” equals nothing; they merely evoke an undivided whole, a pure immediacy, which is why elsewhere nothing less than the “abolition of society” and the “end of all mediation”19 is announced. Thus the journey leads from the critique of false mediation to pure immediacy, from society to community, from having to being, from Marx to Buddha.
The “new cycle of struggles”
What Théorie Communiste is usually credited for in the international discussion is the attempt to work out what is new about the current situation and to consider the past history of class struggle to be an irrevocably closed chapter. Almost all radicals have their historical benchmark where the workers did what they should also do now — though something always went wrong, which is why “lessons from history” must be learned for it to work better next time: For left communists, this is the period after the First World War, in which there was a (not always happy) interplay of workers’ councils and communist organizations from Western Europe to Russia; for anarcho-syndicalists, this was the Spanish Civil War; for fans of the Situationist International, this was May ’68; for workerists, this was the factory struggles of the “mass workers” in the 1960s and 1970s;20 for those more intellectually flexible, this was a little of everything. Théorie Communiste insists that all this is equally history, the workers’ autonomy of the 1970s no less than the left communist and syndicalist unions of the 1920s, since the restructuring of recent decades has put an end to workers’ power and workers’ identity. This restructuring is not limited to the production process, but affects the class relationship as a whole:
The reproduction of capital, which was pinned to a more or less limited national or regional area, loses this framework of coherence and references. The state protected the cohesion of this reproduction, in that it stems from the dominant pole (that which subsumes the other) of the reciprocal involvement of the proletariat and capital. It was the guarantor of this involvement, what was used to called maintaining the “social compromise.” The principle of this loss of coherence is based on the division between the valorization process of capital and the reproduction of labor power. The valorization of capital escapes “upwards” in fragments or segments of the global cycle of capital, on the level of investment, the production process, credit, financial capital, the market, the circulation of surplus value, the equalization of profit, and the framework of competition.
The reproduction of labor power escapes “downwards.” In the “best” case scenario a decoupling of wage and productivity occurs. Welfare is transformed into a total, standardized preliminary purchase of labor power at the minimum level that suppresses its value at the time of its individual sale. In the worse case scenario: Self-subsistence, local solidarity, and parallel economies… Where the interests of industry, finance, and the labor force were spatially connected, a separation between the valorization of capital and the reproduction the labor force can be established. The space of the restructured capitalist world is subdivided at all levels in its ‘fractal’ zones: world, continents, countries, regions, cities, and neighborhoods. At each level, a constellation of different zones is articulated: an “overdeveloped” core; zones that group themselves around more or less dense capitalist cores; crisis-ridden zones characterized by direct violence against the “social garbage,” margins, ghettos, and a subterranean economy controlled by various mafia groups.21
Théorie Communiste summarizes this situation as double decoupling between valorization and reproduction of labor power: as a geographic divergence and as a decoupling of workers’ income from the wage by means of an expansion of consumer credit. The outcome is a crisis in the wage relation, reflected in a new “illegitimacy of the wage demand.” The existence of the worker has lost its luster and no longer finds confirmation in the movement of capital; it is no longer anything but an external constraint. Against this backdrop, Théorie Communiste sees a “new cycle of struggles,” in which — according to the endlessly repeated formula — to act as a class is the very limit of the class struggle. References are made to riots without demands like in the French banlieues in 2005 and in Greece in 2008; to workers at plant closings, who do not demand to keep their jobs, but rather severance pay; to workplace occupations, in which there is no self-managed resumption of production, but rather the destruction of goods and machines; to experiences like in Argentina, in which the self-organization of workers as workers only prolonged the separations between different sectors; to the movement in France in 2006, that called for the withdrawal of the CPE law without hoping for much from this demand, let alone believing that the demand for stable jobs could create a connection to the youths in the banlieues.22
As outlined in the 28 Theses, we also see the defining features of the last decades in such terms: as the crumbling of the great worker’s bastions in the old centers, production relocations, casualization extending well into “regular” work relations, increased global competition among the wage earners, and the revocation of the social democratic promise of upward social mobility.23 And in contrast to what is alleged in Théorie Communiste’s reply, for us it is neither about a rescue of the workers’ autonomy of the 1960s and 1970s (whose demise in the course of restructuring we explicitly state), nor do we expect “with respect to the precarious and ‘superfluous’… the rebirth of a essentially similar actor,” especially since we do not know how to imagine this: How should the precarious and superfluous bring about the rebirth of a movement whose basis was large-scale industry? Our claim that the “future of the class as a whole depends decisively upon the ability of the superfluous to make their situation the point of departure for a generalized social movement” is precisely not aimed at the “rebirth” of a faded movement, but at our historically novel situation. What distinguishes the global constellation today not only from the period around 1917, but also the years around 1968, is not least of all the “gigantic surplus population” mentioned in the 28 Theses which results from dramatic rationalization waves in industry as well as from the “green revolution” in the south, i.e. the still continuing proletarianization of the rural population (and thus in both cases from the development of the productive forces). This “informal proletariat” (Mike Davis) makes the “centrality of the factory” invoked by the workerists seem quite antiquated, without being itself the new “central subject.” We do not want to participate in such games of the theorists of revolution — one fraction takes the productive working class as already integrated and eagerly looks to the excluded and their bread riots, the other fraction takes the bread riots as powerless and relies on the productive working class and its strong arms — and the excessive exaggeration of the riots in the banlieues into an uprising against “everything that produces and defines them [the rebels]”24 is not ours, but Théorie Communiste’s.
Though largely correct, Théorie Communiste’s picture of the current era goes askew when it serves to invoke a situation in which almost nothing is left to the workers than to rebel against their own existence as a class. What makes others depressed and gives rise to nostalgia — the endless chain of defeats in recent workers’ struggles — provides a good reason to be optimistic in this perspective. And if we are not mistaken, it is especially this good news of the self-abolition of the class already being on the agenda in this new cycle of struggles that accounts for the fascination of Théorie Communiste.
Already the image of the previous era, which largely resembles the “Fordism” of regulation theorists, is strongly stylized, so that the present stands out as an even stronger contrast. “Fordism” was not a cohesive national formation: The industries that supported it — manufacturers of durable consumer goods — produced for the world market and already for this reason did not consider the local working class as consumers, but, as was always the case, a cost factor. The increasing real wages of the golden decades after the Second World War were not “ideal”25 for valorization (this assumption is a left Keynesian legend), but had to be fought for by the workers and could be gained because accumulation ran like clockwork and ensured full employment for quite a while.
This has long been passé. With the creeping crisis of overaccumulation over the last decades, revolutions in communications and transportation allowing for a new global division of labor, the giant productivity increases of digital technologies, and the proletarianization of the southern hemisphere, this constellation has been broken. As a result, the position of wage earners in the old centers has becomes more precarious, albeit with significant differences from country to country — Germany for example is far less “post-Fordist” than Britain or the United States, with the core workforce of the strong export industries being able to largely defend its position. But the image of a global downward spiral of wages and working conditions is wrong. As much as workers feel the new global wage pressure, those in the new boom zones are occasionally in a position to wrest something from the class enemy. It seems quite bold to assume a general “illegitimacy of the wage demand” when even the Economist wishes the Chinese working class all the best in the wage struggle in order to balance the inequalities in the global economy, and when more recently the demand for free trade unions has been circulating through struggles there.26 It is of course true that the large concentrations of workers in India or in China present “no return of what disappeared in the ‘West’ — a social system that… defined the worker’s identity and expressed itself in the labor movement,” if only because historical formations never take their leave in one place in order to emerge again as faithful replicas in another. But a simple catastrophism, which is already contradicted by wage developments in the regions that are still trying to catch up, is hardly helpful for understanding the current class reality. For many proletarians in China, India, and Brazil, for example, capitalism still, or for the first time, carries the promise of a better life, or at least one not as bleak and monotonous as that in the countryside from which, not surprisingly, they are moving away to the new metropolitan areas. These people seem to prefer wealth of the order of having rather than of the being together in the village community.
Théorie Communiste’s attempt to bring the various struggles around the world to the denominator of a “new cycle” heralding the self-abolition of the class is characterized by wishful thinking and results in a forced construction, a fixed system into which reality is squeezed; what does not fit into the picture is ignored. It is, for example, simply not the case that wage struggles are nowhere successful any longer or that the demand for compensation today has generally replaced the demand to save jobs. Instead of attributing to the disparate struggles a common historical tendency, they should be understood precisely in their diversity as an expression of a certain moment.
The thesis that we find ourselves currently in a crisis of the wage relation and that the contradiction between capital and proletariat is now situated at the level of the reproduction of the classes themselves overstates the case. Through the normal course of business, the daily performance of wage labor, the class relationship is constantly reproduced. By reproducing their own lives, proletarians reproduce capital and their dependence on it. If the life of workers becomes more precarious and the surplus population increases, that is bad for people, but irrelevant for capital, whose continued existence does not depend on general human happiness. A crisis of the wage relationship, understood not as a permanent crisis of the proletarian existence, but as a historical crossroads, would be given only if the proletarianized attempted to overcome this relation. Strictly speaking, the magic formula that “to act as a class is the limit of the class struggle,” or that class existence today is only an external coercion, states nothing more than that workers do not feel comfortable in their own skins and are less and less in a position to defend the status quo. The difference from earlier times, when there was a self-confident workers’ milieu, worker’s pride, and the socialist vision of a future workers’ civilization freed from the idlers and bosses, should not be underestimated. However, the disappearance of all this means in itself nothing more than that the only horizon remaining is the old world, as rotten and ailing as it may be. Compared to the current calls for “real democracy,” for regulating financial markets, redistribution, and so forth, with which the wage earners in the old centers protest against their proceeding precarization, even the worn-out socialism of the old days can look almost subversive.
Theory and projection
Théorie Communiste evades this bleak reality with an operation that stems from the arsenal of exactly the old ultra-leftism to whose supersession they have committed themselves: the theorists project their desire for revolution onto contemporary struggles. Just as some council communists saw the dawn of the councilist revolution whenever workers’ actions had escaped union control, today’s struggles are seen by Théorie Communiste also in a triumphalist light: “Communism belongs to the present, because it is the content of the current practices of class struggle.” Relegated to the realm of myths as a historical constant, the revolutionary nature of the proletariat suddenly emerges in the present: “The proletariat as a class of the capitalist mode of production and the revolutionary class are identical.” Already the notion of a goal and the sober observation that this goal currently has few friends is considered reprehensible. And the same communist theorists who showed no inhibition to define in great detail what communism is and isn’t suddenly show great humility and claim to be nothing more than note takers of the proletarian world spirit, whose activity takes place before their eyes: “It’s not about asking the question of the end point of the class struggle in the future, but the definition itself of the contradiction between the proletariat and capital, which now represents the class struggle.” Such humility amounts to a considerable hubris, in so far as the theorists’ communism is no longer merely an idea of the theorists — and maybe a fairly eccentric one at that — but is awarded the higher consecration of expressing the historical movement itself. Our reflections on the relation between theory and practice may be unsatisfactory. But it is even more unsatisfactory to resolve the problem by denying the difference out of hand and declaring one’s own theory as nothing more than the condensed and generalized expression of the struggles themselves.
This proclaimed self-limitation of theory cannot be maintained by the advocates of communization. To take this self-limitation seriously would be to eliminate precisely what is relevant in the debate on communization, namely the attempt to redefine the revolution after the end of socialism in all its different facets. By playing through the idea of what revolution can mean at a historical point in which the conquest of political power as well as workers’ self-management have been exhausted as a perspective, in which there can be no unity of the class before its self-abolition and the class maybe does not even have to recognize itself as such in order to take action, by stressing for example that in a situation of revolutionary crisis the seizure and free distribution of goods would be the most powerful weapon of the proletariat in the process of abolishing itself, such contributions to the debate are nothing less than communist social fiction, a conscious projection, and that is what makes them interesting.27
What makes them flawed is a steady drift towards mysticism, ultimately driven by fear of the concept of production, though the picture is not always so clear in this respect. Precisely at this decisive point the theorists of communization entangle themselves in nothing but contradictions and end up in complete confusion. Having said that “the capitalist mode of production already allows us to see — albeit contradictorily and not as a ‘good side’ — human activity as a continuous global social flux, and the ‘general intellect’ or ‘collective worker’ as the dominant force of production,” they assert in the very next sentence that the “social character of production does not prefigure anything”;28 the product abolished as such a moment ago reemerges in shamefaced quotation marks in the scenario of revolution, where it is freely distributed; socialization of labor and the means of production are deemed sometimes as the “Alpha and Omega of the affirmation of the proletariat,” and at other times as the only revolutionary way out. At times it seems that the theorists of communization do not really understand themselves. It remains to their credit that they ruthlessly note the end of an era, showing what from today’s perspective is insufficient about earlier attempts at revolution, and at least pose the question of how the escalation of class struggles into communism could occur today.
1 “The proletariat executes the sentence that private property pronounces on itself by producing the proletariat, just as it executes the sentence that wage-labor pronounces on itself by producing wealth for others and poverty for itself. When the proletariat is victorious, it by no means becomes the absolute side of society, for it is victorious only by abolishing itself and its opposite. Then the proletariat disappears as well as the opposite which determines it, private property.” Frederick Engels/Karl Marx, The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism (MECW 4) p. 36.
2 Freundinnen und Freunde der klassenlosen Gesellschaft, 28 Thesen zur Klassengesellschaft, Kosmoprolet 1 (2007) [english translation]. The critique to which we reply here was published as Théorie Communiste, „Zwischen Arbeiterautonomie und Kommunisierung. Eine Kritik an den 28 Thesen zur Klassengesellschaft“, Kosmoprolet 3 (2011) [English translation]. The much longer French original of this text can be found here.
3 Gilles Dauvé / Karl Nesic, “Love of Labor? Love of Labor Lost” . We quote from the slightly different German version published as “Lieben die ArbeiterInnen die Arbeit?” (Supplement to Wildcat-Zirkular 65, 2003).
4 The British-American journal Endnotes has documented and commented on parts of this ongoing exchange.
5 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (MECW 35) p. 51.
6 Program of the German Communist Workers’ Party (1920). The KAPD was founded in the spring of 1920 as an ultra-left split-off from the KPD, which they accused of an authoritarian “leader policy” and a departure from anti-parliamentarism and the rejection of unions. While they initially sought to become a member of the Bolshevik Third International and even justified the suppression of the Kronstadt uprising in 1921, they soon turned to a sharp critique of Russian “state capitalism.” With the ebbing of the revolutionary wave after the war, the party, which had apparently counted up to 80,000 members, quickly fell into infighting and finally into utter insignificance.
7 Group of International Communists (Holland), Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution .
8 C.f. Informations et correspondences ouvrières (ICO), La Grève généralisée en France, mai-juin 1968 , Paris 2007.
9 Paul Mattick, “Introduction” to The Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution ’.
10 Loren Goldner, “Facing Reality 45 Years Later: Critical Dialogue with James/Lee/Chaulieu.”
11 Herbert Marcuse, Das Ende der Utopie. Vorträge und Diskussionen in Berlin 1967, (Frankfurt/M. 1980), p. 10, 14.
12 Ibid., p. 34-35.
13 An attempt to decipher the current crisis of the value form is undertaken by Sander, „Eine Krise des Werts“, Kosmoprolet 2 (2009) [english version].
14 Marx, Capital vol. 1, p. 87.
15 Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program.”
16 This idea is developed in detail in Raasan Samuel Loewe, „Produktivkraftkritik und proletarische Bewegung“, Kosmoprolet 3, 2011.
17 Blaumachen, The era of riots (update), on libcom.org. As Blaumachen themselves explain, the factories were burnt down because the bosses had paid no wages for several months — a clearly legitimate and hopefully effective means in the struggle for wages, one that is without doubt also driven by hatred of the drudgery in the factory, but nothing that would point beyond the proletarian existence. For largely appropriate objections against such tendencies among communizers see Sander / Mac Intosh, “Is the Working Class Liquidated?”Internationalist Perspective 55 (2011).
18 Bruno Astarian, Crisis Activity and Communization (2010). In this, Astarian agrees with Théorie Communiste, but he sometimes goes even further in his immediatist mysticism: To him, also “the separation between the need and the means of its satisfaction,” which will presumably turn out to be quite impossible to overcome, is a problem.
19 Théorie Communiste, “The Suspended Step of Communization: Communization vs. Socialization” (2009).
20 Since workerists endeavor to explore the actual behavior of the class, such a historic fixation should be far from their thoughts. Like any empirical study, however, also the workerist inquiries are based on certain assumptions which decide what one is looking for in the first place. In their case this is the conviction that what matters is “workers’ power” at the point of production. For this reason, they are also today looking for the pioneering struggles “along the globalized productive cooperation” — “with moderate success,” as they themselves concede (Preface to the supplement Der historische Moment / ArbeiterInnen verlassen die Fabrik, Wildcat 88 (2011)). On the resulting ideological contortions, cf. I. M. Zimmerwald, „Die Abenteuer der Autonomie“, Kosmoprolet 1 (2007).
21 R.S., “Ballade en novembre” (2005).
22 R.S. “The Present Moment” (2009).
23 This is by no means original, as these developments are quite obvious and are also discussed by the academic and reformist left. In contrast to them, however, we do not take these developments as a result of an ultimately arbitrary, and therefore reversible “neoliberal” policy shift.
24 R.S. “The Present Moment.”
26 “The rising power of China’s workers: Why it’s good for the world,” The Economist, 31.7.2010.
27 See, for example, Théorie Communiste, “Self-Organization is the First Act of the Revolution; It Then Becomes an Obstacle which the Revolution Has to Overcome” (2005); “The Suspended Step of Communization” (2009).
28 Théorie Communiste, “Self-Organization is the First Act…”