Bordiga on Sorel

It is as­ser­ted that in or­der to elim­in­ate so­cial in­justice, all that is re­quired is to re­late every com­mod­ity’s ex­change value to the value of the labor con­tained with­in it. Marx shows — and will show later, pit­ting him­self against Bak­un­in, against Las­salle, against Dühring, against Sorel and against all the oth­er lat­ter-day pyg­mies — that what lies be­neath all this is noth­ing oth­er than the apo­lo­gia, and the pre­ser­va­tion, of bour­geois eco­nomy.

For about ten years or so pri­or to the Oc­to­ber Re­volu­tion, re­volu­tion­ary syn­dic­al­ism had been fight­ing against so­cial-demo­crat­ic re­vi­sion­ism. Georges Sorel was the main the­or­eti­cian and lead­er of this cur­rent, even if earli­er ante­cedents cer­tainly ex­is­ted. It was a move­ment which was par­tic­u­larly strong in the Lat­in coun­tries: to be­gin with they fought in­side the so­cial­ist parties, but later split off, both be­cause of the vi­cis­situdes of the struggle and in or­der to be con­sist­ent with a doc­trine which re­jec­ted the ne­ces­sity of the party as a re­volu­tion­ary class or­gan.

The primary form of pro­let­ari­an or­gan­iz­a­tion for the syn­dic­al­ists was the eco­nom­ic trade uni­on, whose main task was sup­posed to be not only lead­ing the class struggle to de­fend the im­me­di­ate in­terests of the work­ing class, but also pre­par­ing, without be­ing sub­ject to any polit­ic­al party, to lead the fi­nal re­volu­tion­ary war against the cap­it­al­ist sys­tem.

Sore­li­ans and Marx­ism

A com­plete ana­lys­is of the ori­gins and evol­u­tion of this doc­trine, both as we find it in Sorel’s work, and in the mul­ti­far­i­ous groups which in vari­ous coun­tries sub­scribed to it, would take us too far off our track; at this point we shall there­fore just dis­cuss its his­tor­ic­al bal­ance sheet, and its very ques­tion­able view of a fu­ture non-cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety.

Sorel and many of his fol­low­ers, in Italy as well, star­ted off by de­clar­ing that they were the true suc­cessors of Marx in fight­ing against leg­al­ist­ic re­vi­sion­ism in its pa­ci­fist and evol­u­tion­ist guise. Even­tu­ally they were forced to ad­mit that their tend­ency rep­res­en­ted a new re­vi­sion­ism; left rather than right wing in ap­pear­ance but ac­tu­ally is­su­ing from the same source, and con­tain­ing the same dangers.

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Юлий Мартов, «Религия и марксизм» (1909)

The following article on “Religion and Marxism” was written by Iulii Martov, one of the leading Mensheviks (along with Georgii Plekhanov). It was published in the journal On the Brink in 1909, and responds to the first volume of Lunacharskii’s Religion and Socialism, as well as some occasional pieces by Nikolai Berdiaev and Dmitrii Merezhkovskii. Martov also takes aim at Georges Sorel’s conception of “social myth” and the beautiful words of Benedetto Croce.


«Мы стараемся показать», говорит в предисловии к своему французскому сборнику г-н Мережковский, «что последний смысл русской революции остается непонятным, вне понимания мистического»). Юродствующий во Христе писатель может позволить себе роскошь откровенно признаться в научной непознаваемости «тайны» пережитого Россией общественного кризиса. Эта роскошь недоступна общественным деятелям, принимающим непосредственное участие в социальной борьбе и слишком близко соприкасающимся с ее грубой реальностью. Это не значит, однако, что «мистическое понимание» недавних событий привлекало к себе мысль одних лишь чудодеев ого человечества и человекобожества.

На заре закончившегося периода отечественной истории народническая мысль нашла в идее «не буржуазного, но демократического» переворота формулу достаточно-мистического проникновения в сущность надвигавшейся стихии.

На закате того-же периода, переработав все противоречивые впечатления бешеной пляски общественных сил, марксистская мысль большевистского толка, отчаявшаяся дать научную формулу» сущности русской революции», мистически постигла последнюю, как лежащую» на границе» между переворотом буржуазным и переворотом социалистическим (формулу дал К. Каутский и одобрил Н. Ленин).

Действительный, объективный смысл пере-жевавшегося «сдвига» упорно не давался познающей мысли и, жаждая «синтеза», она склонялась к интуитивному восприятию того, что составляло «душу событий».

Побежденные общественные движения не раз уже оставляли по себе осадок мистической реакции. Ее знала и революция 1789-1798 г., и революция 1848 года, и русское движение 70-тых г.г. Интересно, однако, что потер певшая жестокое поражение Коммуна 1871 года не имела такого идейного эпилога. Быть может, потому, что она была первой — и до сих пор последней — революцией не буржуазной, пролетарской? Есть все основания думать, что это так. Но еслиб это было так, то отсюда следовало бы, что наша отечественная «смута», несомненно? оставившая по себе еще не исчерпанный осадок мистицизма, eo ipso должна быть зачислена по ведомству движений буржуазных. Этот вывод может, на первый взгляд, показаться парадоксальным. И, однако, это так буржуазному перевороту имманентно присуще глубокое противоречие между бытием и сознанием, между тем, что он есть в действительности, и тем, как он себя сознает, между объективными задачами, выполняемыми его участниками, и идеальными целями, которые они себе ставят. Тайна этого неизбежного противоречия не заключает в себе ничего мистического: она вся, целиком, коренится в условиях существования и развития буржуазного общества. Но раскрытие этой тайны, практическое преодоление этого противоречия само предполагает эмансипацию от условий существования буржуазного общества эмансипацию, возможную лишь в процессе хвостанные» против этого общества и на достаточно высокой стадии борьбы с ним. Continue reading

Nothing new to see here: Towards a critique of communization

Donald Parkinson
Communist League
June 30, 2015

Originally posted at Communist League Tampa

Awaiting the release of Endnotes 4, I decided to write a critique of the broad tendency of communization, focusing specifically on Dauvé and Theorie Communiste. Quite a few have asked me for a critique of Endnotes and communization theory more broadly, seeing as I mentioned these things briefly in my earlier piece Towards a Communist Left. So I decided to elaborate on my critique of these currents as well as provide a critical introduction to communization in general.

Communization must be placed within the context of the overall defeat of proletarian struggles in the 20th century. This defeat in many ways led to a crisis in Marxism, where increasingly isolated theorists looked to innovate and break from orthodoxy in order to “save” Marxist theory and politics. Sometimes breaks with orthodoxy are necessary. Yet there is also a danger of needlessly breaking with orthodoxy in the name of theoretical innovation, when instead the result is just a repetition of past bad politics. While communization theory does make the occasional interesting insight and serve as a useful theoretical foil, it is largely the case that what it offers is not a fresh new perspective for Marxist politics but a repeat of Kropotkinist and Sorelian critiques of Marxism with more theoretical sophistication.

Communization refers to relatively broad tendency of writers and journals that don’t all agree on everything. When referring to communization one has to be careful what they say, as there is as much divergence amongst “communizers” as there is ideological unity. Overall what unites this tendency is a belief that revolution will have to immediately establish communist relations of production from day one, that an immediate break from waged labor, commodity production and the value-form is to be favored as opposed to an approach where the working class holds political power and dismantles capitalism in a transition period that may temporarily maintain aspects of capitalism. Added to this is a general hostility to organized politics and anything resembling “old forms” like parties, councils, and unions.

Overall communization can fall into two camps: Gilles Dauvé’s “normative” communization and Theorie Communiste’s “structuralist” theory of communization. The key differences between these tendencies can be found in Volume 1 of Endnotes, essentially a debate between Dauvé and Theorie Communiste. In his pamphlet When Insurrections Die, Dauvé puts forward the thesis that the proletariat failed in past revolutions because it didn’t make a sufficient break with waged labor, opting for self-management and collectivization instead where labor vouchers replaced money. Using Spain as his example, Dauvé argues that these revolutions failed because they aimed to manage the proletarian condition rather than abolish it, therefore reproducing capitalism in a different form. Therefore the idea of a transition period where the proletariat raises itself to the ruling class within a decaying capitalism is to be rejected in favor of the immediate “self-abolition” of the proletariat.

Dauvé’s work is in many ways an attempt to square the insights of older left communists like Anton Pannekoek and Amadeo Bordiga with the ideas of the Situationist International. Dauvé is just as critical of workers councils managing production as he is critical of the party-form, opting for an approach that focuses on the content of revolution, this content being an immediate break with waged labor and money aka communization. For Dauvé the abolition of value is key to revolution, something that can not be achieved gradually or “by half steps” but in the process of insurrection itself. This means rejecting any kind of scheme involving “labor vouchers” or “labor notes” where labor-time is directly measured to determine the worker’s access to the social product, even if these measures are merely temporary transitional steps towards communism.

Dauvé makes many important points, many of which are reiterations of classic left communist politics (for example, rejecting the anti-fascist popular front). Bringing value and its abolition back into the picture is certainly important, reminding us that communism is not simply a better way of managing capitalist forms but a radical break from wage labor and the commodity-form itself. His critiques of councilist formalism and workers self-management also are welcome as antidotes to many ideas among the anti-Stalinist left that act as if Stalinism would work if more self-management existed (PARECON comes to mind). It’s also a move away from traditional leftist workerism, that valorizes workers as workers rather than a class which abolishes itself and all other classes. Putting the transformation of social relations at the heart of communist revolution is certainly a step forward. Yet Dauvé has little to suggest how this can be achieved, only stating that Kautksy and Lenin’s formula of merging socialism with the workers movement is to be avoided because communism is imminent to the struggle of labor against capital.

Theorie Communiste responds to Dauvé by accusing his argument of essentially being tautological: the communist movement failed because it failed to produce communism. For Theorie Communiste, Dauvé sees communism as a normative essence within the proletariat itself, and that past revolutions failed because the proletariat failed to live up to this essence or are betrayed by managers and chose to manage capitalism instead of create communism. Dauvé fails to answer the question of why the workers didn’t create communism, and instead simply states the obvious. Rather than being some essence to the proletariat, Theorie Communiste see communism as a product of the historical periodization of capitalism, which is itself a series of cycles of contradictions between the proletariat and capital.

For Theorie Communiste the “why” question of why workers didn’t create communism is answered by the concept of programmatism. Programmatism basically means the “old workers’ movement” which was all about affirming the proletarian condition rather than abolishing it. This is meant to describe the entire workers movement of the past, not just its more reformist elements, describing all politics where “revolution is thus the affirmation of the proletariat, whether as a dictatorship of the proletariat, workers’ councils, the liberation of work, a period of transition, the withering of the state, generalized self-management, or a “society of associated producers.” Programmatism in this theory is not a means towards communism, but a product of capitalism in the phase of “formal subsumption” transitioning into the more advanced phase of “real subsumption.” This phase decomposed in the period of the 1920s to the 1970s, leading to today’s modern phase of “real subsumption” where capitalism has fully dominated the proletariat. Programmatism created a “worker identity” that allowed for an affirmation of the proletariat that is now no longer possible, and therefore there can only be the complete negation of the proletarian condition through its immediate self-abolition.

This argument, while more sophisticated than Dauvé’s, essentially reduces the entire workers movement to a means of capitalist development and claims that all along communism was impossible until (conveniently) now. Yet why this era will produce communism when all class struggle in the past simply affirmed capital is never explained. Without the millenarian expectations of apocalyptic revolution Theorie Communiste’s theory simply would argue that communism is impossible. It also completely writes off the actual possibility of organizing politically and developing a real strategy to defeat capitalism, since any attempt to organize the proletariat to abolish itself would mean organizing it as a class within capitalism and therefore affirming it. As a result the only way forward will be spontaneous outbursts that develop to the point of some kind of “rupture with the wage relation.” Theorie Communiste and Dauvé have very similar positions when it comes to their actual political conclusions, which is that revolution will not have a transition based on a dictatorship of the proletariat organized in parties and councils but see an immediate move towards communism, where value is abolished and free access to all goods is established. They just come to these conclusions from different theoretical reckonings. Theorie Communiste are ultra-determinist, almost to the point of being fatalist, while Dauvé seems to suggest communism was possible all along if the workers made the right choices.

In this sense they theorize the conclusions of the anarchist Kropotkin, who imagined a revolution taking the form of local communities spontaneously establishing common access to all property and federating with each other as needed without any kind of transition where the proletariat would hold state power. Kropotkin came from a time where self-sufficient peasants were far more prominent as well as their spontaneous outbursts, making his politics a bit more believable and easier to sell. While Dauvé and Theorie Communiste don’t spell out the localist implications of their theory, the idea that there must be immediate communization does strongly suggest that in a revolutionary situation isolated regions would attempt essentially autarkic communism rather than making any kind of compromises with the old order. Other adherents of communization, like Jasper Bernes in his essay Logistics, Counterlogistics, and the Communist Project do essentially spell this out. Bernes argues the complexity of the global division of labor means revolutionary zones would have to trade with other nations to operate capitalist means of production. Bernes writes off the idea of trade since this would entail temporarily holding onto aspects of capitalism, instead suggesting that revolutionaries won’t be able to operate most capitalist forces of production. How this strategy will be capable of feeding people in a crisis situation never seems to cross his mind. At least communization theorist Bruno Astarian in his article Communization as a Way Out of the Crisis openly admits that people may have to starve for his schemes to work out:

Finally, there is always the chance that the supply of flour for our bakers will be sporadic, at least at first, if the proletarians at the mill prefer to discuss the meaning of love or life instead of grinding wheat. Would this lead to chaos? We shall be told that today there will be no bread. You just have to accept it. Another alternative is that someone conceives a plan, quantified and taking time scales into account, and someone else complies with its terms. In such a case not only is value reestablished. In fact, a proletarian experience of this kind has no future: if it works the proletarians will rapidly lose their rights (restoration of wage labor in one form or another); if it does not work they will return to the old framework of unemployment and unpaid wages. It is likely, in any event, that the communizing solution will not be considered until various chess matches of this kind have tried and found wanting.

What all of this ignores is that communism isn’t possible on a local scale, and that “true” communism where value has been completely abolished will require the co-operation of all of humanity utilizing the the worlds collective productive forces. This reason alone explains why immediate communization is not possible, with transition being a necessity imposed by objective circumstances rather than the will of revolutionaries. It also misses the basic Marxist insight that it is capitalism that creates the conditions for communism in the sense of creating a globalized society (with a global class, the proletariat) with forces of production that are developed enough to allow humanity to pursue a life beyond endless toil and starvation.

Immediate communization is also impossible because of the realities of specialization under capitalism, where a large and essentially petty-bourgeois strata of professionals with skill-sets necessary for the reproduction of society (surgeons for example) are able to use their monopolies on skills and information to assert a privileged position above proletarians in society. This strata would have much reason to resist communism and withhold their skills at the expense of society to assert material privileges. As a result concessions would have to given to this strata until their skill monopolies can be broken through the collective reorganization of production and education in a way to challenge the very basis of the mental/manual division of labor. Such a process would not happen overnight, problematizing the notion that a immediate transcendence of capitalism is possible. In other words transition isn’t something revolutionaries choose but something imposed by objective conditions. Communism must be created from the raw material produced by capitalism, raw materials that aren’t as malleable as the “revolutionary will” of communists would like them to be. Continue reading

Critical comments on Nick Axel’s recent gloss of Walter Benjamin, “Critique of violence” (1921)

History or metaphysics?

Image: Walter Benjamin as a young man,
photographed smoking a cigarette (1922)

Nick Axel recently wrote up an exegetical piece going over Walter Benjamin’s 1921 essay, “The critique of violence” on his blog, Awaking Lucid (mentioned in the last post). I came across it in connection with the other piece Axel wrote, “What is the problem?”, in which Benjamin’s essay likewise plays a crucial role.

Perhaps I’d need the aid of Agamben here, as he is Axel’s primary interlocutor in reading Benjamin, but as things stand I find his account of the essay virtually unrecognizable. At first I thought I must just be misremembering its contents, but upon rereading it I’m left even more confused. Though Axel begins by suggesting that the relation between ethics and violence is his overriding concern, and that Benjamin’s article only interests him insofar as it elucidates this relation, it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between his concerns and those he ascribes to Benjamin. He writes:

Benjamin starts by declaring that the force of law becomes violent when it infringes on ethical issues, and that it is therefore in relation to law that both ethics and violence exist. Although this strongly echoes the reflex mentioned above with ethics and violence composing the two ends of a spectrum, this juridical framework is fundamentally inadequate as this would sanction violence as ethical as long as history records it as righteous, as is often the case (if not the impetus) of those who write history and depend on its words for the maintenance of their powerful status as embodiments of law.

For one thing, the main tension does not in my view consist in an opposition of ethics to violence. Indeed, “ethics” is almost nowhere to be found in the essay. (Perhaps Axel takes Benjamin to mean “ethics” whenever he speaks of “justice,” and thus ethical/unethical to just/unjust? This seems to me slightly more plausible). Rather, there is the fundamental opposition between means and ends in modes of justification, and then in the sphere of legality between natural and positive law. There is a further gradation between “legitimate” (sanctioned) and “illegitimate” (unsanctioned) uses of violence.

What strikes me most about this text is not what it says about the complexities of violence and its potential deployment or non-deployment toward an end irrespective of place and time, but rather the way Benjamin was attempting to work through the political exigencies of his day. Violence was a salient issue in 1921 because the world had just witnessed the greatest concentrated bloodbath in history to that point. Not only from the interimperialist war, but from the many domestic struggles throughout and the revolutionary struggles between 1917-1923. How could violence be justified in one case and not in the other? Why was it that the unjust slaughter of millions in the trenches of Northern France was perfectly legal according to agreed-upon international rights of war, while the violent attempt to overthrow unjust social relations was everywhere decried as illegal? Continue reading

Man and nature


Nature! We are encircled and enclasped by her — powerless to depart from her, and powerless to find our way more deeply into her being. Without invitation and without warning she involves us in the orbit of her dance, and drives us onward until we are exhausted and fall from her arm.


We live in the midst of her, and yet to her we are alien. She parleys incessantly with us, and to us she does not disclose her secret. We influence her perpetually, and yet we have no power over her.

— Goethe, Ode “To Nature”[1]

With recent events in Japan and images of Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 tsunami still fresh in our minds, it seems appropriate to revisit the old issue of humanity’s relationship to nature. The proper exposition of the problem requires a great deal of space; therefore, I propose to divide my treatment of the issue into four separate sections, each of which builds on the results of those that precede it.

After all, the problem of man’s relation to nature has been conceived in a number of distinct ways over the ages, many of which survive into the present day, in various mutations. So perhaps it might be useful to begin with an overview, a genealogy of sorts, so that these different conceptions and their relation to one another can be clarified. The presentation will be dialectical, but not out of any obligation to some artificially preconfigured format. It will be dialectical because the subject at hand is itself really dialectical,[2] as the various conceptions of nature interweave and overlap in their progress through history. For man’s orientation to nature has by no means been the same over time; and by that same token there are no later conceptions of nature that do not bear the traces of those that came before it. Continue reading