The debate between Théorie Communiste (TC) and Troploin (Dauvé & Nesic) that we have reproduced revolves around the fundamental question of how to theorise the history and actuality of class struggle and revolution in the capitalist epoch. As we have stressed in our introduction, both sides of the debate were products of the same political milieu in France in the aftermath of the events of 1968; both groups share, to this day, an understanding of the movement which abolishes capitalist social relations as a movement of communisation. According to this shared view, the transition to communism is not something that happens after the revolution. Rather, the revolution as communisation is itself the dissolution of capitalist social relations through communist measures taken by the proletariat, abolishing the enterprise form, the commodity form, exchange, money, wage labour and value, and destroying the state. Communisation, then, is the immediate production of communism: the self-abolition of the proletariat through its abolition of capital and state.
What sharply differentiates TC's position from that of Troploin, however, is the way in which the two groups theorise the production, or the historical production, of this movement of communisation. Neither grounds the possibility of successful communist revolution on an “objective” decadence of capitalism; however, Troploin's conception of the history of class struggle, in common with much of the wider ultra-left, is of a fluctuating antagonism between classes, an ebb and flow of class struggle, according to the contingencies of each historical conjuncture. In this wider conception, the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat appears to be or is submerged at some points in history, only to re-emerge at other “high points” (e.g. 1848, 1871, 1917-21, 1936, 1968-9). On this view, we are currently experiencing a prolonged downturn in class struggle (at least in the advanced capitalist countries), and it is a case of waiting for the next re-emergence of the communist movement, or for the revolutionary proletariat to carry out its subversive work: “Well burrowed, old Mole!”1
Thus for Troploin, communism as communisation is an ever-present (if at times submerged) possibility, one which, even if there is no guarantee that it will be realised, is an invariant in the capitalist epoch. By contrast, for TC communisation is the specific form which the communist revolution must take in the current cycle of struggle. In distinction from Troploin, then, TC are able to self-reflexively ground their conception of communisation in an understanding of capitalist history as cycles of struggle.
TC historicise the contradictory relation between capital and proletariat on the basis of a periodisation of the subsumption of labour under capital; this periodisation distinguishes cycles of struggle corresponding to the qualitative shifts in the relation of exploitation. This history for TC comprises three broadly identifiable periods: (1) formal subsumption — ending around 1900; (2) the first phase of real subsumption — from 1900 to the 1970s; (3) the second phase of real subsumption — from the 1970s to the present.
Importantly for TC, the subsumption of labour under capital is not merely a question of the technical organisation of labour in the immediate production process, in which formal subsumption would be paired with the extraction of absolute surplus value (through the lengthening of the working day) and real subsumption with the extraction of relative surplus value (through increasing productivity by the introduction of new production techniques, allowing workers to reproduce the value of their wages in less time thus performing more surplus labour in a working day of a given length). In TC's conception, the character and extent or degree of subsumption of labour under capital is also, and perhaps fundamentally, determined by the way in which the two poles of the capital-labour relation, i.e. capital and proletariat, relate to each other as classes of capitalist society. Thus for TC, the key to the history of capital is the changing mode of reproduction of capitalist social relations as a whole according to the dialectical development of the relation between classes. Of course this development is itself intrinsically bound up with the exigencies of surplus-value extraction. In short, for TC the subsumption of labour under capital mediates, and is mediated by the specific historical character of the class relation at the level of society as a whole.
There is something problematic both in the way TC use the concept of subsumption to periodise capitalism, and in the way this usage partially obscures one of the most significant aspects of the development of the class relation which their theory otherwise brings into focus. Strictly speaking, formal and real subsumption of labour under capital only apply to the immediate process of production. In what sense, for example, can anything beyond the labour-process ever be said to be actually subsumed by capital rather than merely dominated or transformed by it?2 TC, however, attempt to theorise under the rubric of these categories of subsumption the character of the capitalist class relation per se rather than simply the mode in which the labour-process actually becomes the valorisation-process of capital. Yet it is through their questionable theoretical deployment of the categories of subsumption that TC are able to advance a new conception of the historical development of the class relation. Within this periodisation the degree of integration of the circuits of reproduction of capital and labour-power is of decisive importance. The key to the historical periodisation of the class relation is the extent to which the reproduction of labour-power, and hence of the proletariat as class, is integrated with the circuit of self-presupposition of capital.3
TC's “period of formal subsumption” is characterised by an un-mediated, external relation between capital and proletariat: the reproduction of the working-class is not fully integrated into the cycle of valorisation of capital. In this period, the proletariat constitutes a positive pole of the relation, and is able to assert its autonomy vis-à-vis capital at the same time as it finds itself empowered by capitalist development. However the rising power of the class within capitalist society and its autonomous affirmation steadily come into contradiction with each other. In the crushing of workers’ autonomy in the revolutions and counter-revolutions at the end of the First World War this contradiction is resolved in an empowerment of the class which reveals itself as nothing more than capitalist development itself. This qualitative shift in the class relation marks the end of the transition from the period of formal subsumption to the first phase of real subsumption. From this point on the reproduction of labour-power becomes fully integrated, albeit in a heavily mediated fashion, into the capitalist economy, and the process of production is transformed in accordance with the requirements of the valorisation of capital. The relation between capital and proletariat in this phase of subsumption is one which is becoming internal, but mediated through the state, the division of the world economy into national areas and Eastern or Western zones of accumulation (each with their accompanying models of “third world” development), collective bargaining within the framework of the national labour-market and the Fordist deals linking productivity and wage increases
The positivity of the proletarian pole within the class relation during the phase of formal subsumption and the first phase of real subsumption is expressed in what TC term the “programmatism” of the workers’ movement, whose organisations, parties and trade unions (whether social democratic or communist, anarchist or syndicalist) represented the rising power of the proletariat and upheld the programme of the liberation of labour and the self-affirmation of the working class. The character of the class relation in the period of the programmatic workers’ movement thus determines the communist revolution in this cycle of struggle as the self-affirmation of one pole within the capital-labour relation. As such the communist revolution does not do away with the relation itself, but merely alters its terms, and hence carries within it the counter-revolution in the shape of workers’ management of the economy and the continued accumulation of capital. Decentralised management of production through factory councils on the one hand and central-planning by the workers’ state on the other are two sides of the same coin, two forms of the same content: workers’ power as both revolution and counter-revolution.
For TC this cycle of struggle is brought to a close by the movements of 1968–73, which mark the obsolescence of the programme of the liberation of labour and the self-affirmation of the proletariat; the capitalist restructuring in the aftermath of these struggles and the crisis in the relation between capital and proletariat sweeps away or hollows out the institutions of the old workers’ movement. The conflicts of 1968–73 thus usher in a new cycle of accumulation and struggle, which TC term the second phase of real subsumption, characterised by the capitalist restructuring or counter-revolution from 1974–95 which fundamentally alters the character of the relation between capital and proletariat. Gone now are all the constraints to accumulation — all impediments to the fluidity and international mobility of capital — represented by rigidities of national labour-markets, welfare, the division of the world economy into Cold War blocs and the protected national development these allowed on the “periphery” of the world economy.
The crisis of the social compact based on the Fordist productive model and the Keynesian Welfare State issues in financialisation, the dismantling and relocation of industrial production, the breaking of workers’ power, de-regulation, the ending of collective bargaining, privatisation, the move to temporary, flexibilised labour and the proliferation of new service industries. The global capitalist restructuring — the formation of an increasingly unified global labour market, the implementation of neo-liberal policies, the liberalisation of markets, and international downward pressure on wages and conditions — represents a counter-revolution whose result is that capital and the proletariat now confront each other directly on a global scale. The circuits of reproduction of capital and labour-power — circuits through which the class relation itself is reproduced — are now fully integrated: these circuits are now immediately internally related. The contradiction between capital and proletariat is now displaced to the level of their reproduction as classes; from this moment on, what is at stake is the reproduction of the class relation itself.
With the restructuring of capital (which is the dissolution of all the mediations in the class relation) arises the impossibility of the proletariat to relate to itself positively against capital: the impossibility of proletarian autonomy. From being a positive pole of the relation as interlocutor with, or antagonist to, the capitalist class, the proletariat is transformed into a negative pole. Its very being qua proletariat, whose reproduction is fully integrated within the circuit of capital, becomes external to itself. What defines the current cycle of struggle in contradistinction to the previous one is the character of the proletariat's self-relation which is now immediately its relation to capital. As TC put it, in the current cycle the proletariat's own class belonging is objectified against it as exterior constraint, as capital.4
This fundamental transformation in the character of the class relation, which produces this inversion in the proletariat's self-relation as pole of the relation of exploitation, alters the character of class struggles, and causes the proletariat to call into question its own existence as class of the capitalist mode of production. Thus for TC the revolution as communisation is an historically specific production: it is the horizon of this cycle of struggle.5
For TC, the relation between capital and proletariat is not one between two separate subjects, but one of reciprocal implication in which both poles of the relation are constituted as moments of a self-differentiating totality. It is this totality itself — this moving contradiction — which produces its own supersession in the revolutionary action of the proletariat against its own class-being, against capital. This immanent, dialectical conception of the historical course of the capitalist class relation supersedes the related dualisms of objectivism/ subjectivism and spontaneism/ voluntarism which characterised most Marxist theory in the 20th Century and indeed up to the present. The dynamism and changing character of this relation is thus grasped as a unified process and not simply in terms of waves of proletarian offensive and capitalist counter-offensive.
According to TC, it is the qualitative transformations within the capitalist class relation that determine the revolutionary horizon of the current cycle of struggle as communisation. For us, it is also true at a more general level of abstraction that the contradictory relation between capital and proletariat has always pointed beyond itself, to the extent that — from its very origins — it has produced its own overcoming as the immanent horizon of actual struggles. This horizon, however, is inextricable from the real, historical forms that the moving contradiction takes. It is thus only in this qualified sense that we can talk of communism transhistorically (i.e. throughout the history of the capitalist mode of production). As we see it, the communist movement, understood not as a particularisation of the totality — neither as a movement of communists nor of the class — but rather as the totality itself, is both transhistorical and variant according to the historically specific configurations of the capitalist class relation. What determines the communist movement — the communist revolution — to take the specific form of communisation in the current cycle is the very dialectic of integration of the circuits of reproduction of capital and labour-power.6 It is this which produces the radical negativity of the proletariat's self-relation vis-à-vis capital. In this period, in throwing off its “radical chains” the proletariat does not generalise its condition to the whole of society, but dissolves its own being immediately through the abolition of capitalist social relations.