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