Critical comments on ‘Love of Labour? Love of Labour Lost…’
Translated by Endnotes.
The subject which Dauvé and Nesic seek to reflect upon in this text is nothing less than the “historical failure” of the communist movement over the 154 years following the publication of Marx and Engels’ Manifesto.1 They approach this subject by way of a critique of the concept of programmatism developed primarily by the journal Théorie Communiste. However, programmatism could only serve as an explanation of the “failure of the communist movement” if we imagine, as Dauvé and Nesic do, that communism is a norm, a substance, something invariable in “its deep content”.2 For without this assumption programmatism is only the explanation of its own failure. We will thus begin by explicating the theory of programmatism which Dauvé and Nesic have so misunderstood. But it should be noted that what is actually at stake here is the definition of the present period and, even more, the fact that a “present period” may even exist. That is ultimately to say, something called history.
Generally speaking we could say that programmatism is defined as a theory and practice of class struggle in which the proletariat finds, in its drive toward liberation, the fundamental elements of a future social organisation which become the programme to be realised. This 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, generalised self-management, or a “society of associated producers”. Programmatism is not simply a theory — it is above all the practice of the proletariat, in which the rising strength of the class (in unions and parliaments, organisationally, in terms of the relations of social forces or of a certain level of consciousness regarding “the lessons of history”) is positively conceived of as a stepping-stone toward revolution and communism. Programmatism is intrinsically linked to the contradiction between the proletariat and capital as it is constituted by the formal subsumption of labour under capital.
At this point capital, in its relation to labour, poses itself as an external force. For the proletariat, to liberate itself from capitalist domination is to turn labour into the basis of social relations between all individuals, to liberate productive labour, take up the means of production, and abolish the anarchy of capitalism and private property. The proletariat’s liberation is to be founded in a mode of production based upon abstract labour, i.e. upon value.
The revolutionary process of the affirmation of the class is two-fold. It is on the one hand conceived of as the rising strength of the proletariat in the capitalist mode of production and, on the other hand, its affirmation as a particular class and thus the preservation of its autonomy. In the necessity of its own mediations (parties, unions, cooperatives, societies, parliaments), the revolution as autonomous affirmation of the class (as a particular existence for itself in relation to capital) loses its way, not so much in relation to revolution per se, but in relation to this very affirmation. The proletariat’s rising strength is confused with the development of capital, and comes to contradict that which was nevertheless its own specific purpose: its autonomous affirmation.
In the revolutionary period after World War I, of which the Communist Lefts in their practice and theory are the substantial expression, the proletariat finds itself ambushed by a novel situation: in its autonomous affirmation it confronts what it is in capital, what it has become, its own strength as a class in so far as it is a class of the capitalist mode of production. The revolution as affirmation of the class confronts its own failure, because the counter-revolution is intrinsically linked to this affirmation in its very motivations (and not because there was any “error”, or because it was impossible in terms of some ahistorical definition of the revolution). From this point on, the workers’ parties become the content of the counter-revolution closest to the revolution.
With the transition of capital to a period of real subsumption of labour (at the end of the 19th, and beginning of the 20th century), the rising strength of the class, in which labour presents itself as the essence of capital, is confused with the development of capital itself. All the organisations which formalise this rising strength, are able from the First World War onwards, to present themselves as the managers of capital — they become as such the most acute form of the counter-revolution.
In the years after 1917 revolution is still an affirmation of the class, and the proletariat seeks to liberate against capital its social strength which exists in capital — a social strength on which it bases its organisation and founds its revolutionary practice. The very situation which gave it the capacity to engage in the broad affirmation underlying the “revolutionary élan” of the post-war period became its limit. The specificity of this period in relation to classical programmatism, represented by pre-1914 social democracy, resides in the fact that the autonomous affirmation of the class against capital entered into contradiction with its rising strength within capital. At the same time, this affirmation found its raison d’être and its foundation in this integration. What the class is in the capitalist mode of production is the negation of its own autonomy, whilst at the same time being the reason and power behind its drive for autonomous affirmation. The counter-revolutions are administered by the workers’ organisations. The impetuous history between the wars, from the Russian revolution to the Spanish civil war, is that of the liquidation of this question.
The concept of programmatism historicises the terms of class struggle, revolution and communism. This enables us to understand class struggle and revolution in their real historical characteristics and not in relation to a norm; to overcome the opposition which is made between revolution, communism, and its conditions (those famous conditions which are never ripe); to abandon the dichotomy between a proletariat always revolutionary in its substance (revolutionary, in fact, as the subsequent period understands the term) and a revolution which it never produces; to construct the diverse elements of an epoch as a totality producing its own internal connections at the same time as its diversities and conflicts (between Marx and Bakunin, Luxembourg and Bernstein, etc.); and finally, to avoid ending up with a “revolutionary being” of the proletariat, whose every “manifestation” results in a restructuring of capital.
One can always search out evidence to the contrary in isolated actions and events which appear at first sight to oppose themselves to the general movement, and seek to detach such moments from the movement and consider them in isolation. In this way Dauvé and Nesic only show how the incomparably larger part of the movement contradicts their affirmations. By failing to integrate these moments into a totality they limit themselves to opposing isolated activities to each other without grasping their unity.
With the real subsumption of labour under capital, the defining characteristic of which is the extraction of relative surplus value, that which disappears is everything which allowed the proletarian condition to be turned against capital — this is the decomposition of programmatism. From the 20s to the end of the 70s, this decomposition is not an exhaustion of the previous period, but a new structure and a new cycle of struggle. The basis of the decomposition of programmatism as an historical period is the existence of a workers’ identity stabilised in the aftermath of the second world war: a workers’ identity confirmed in the reproduction of capital — labour legitimised as the rival of capital within the capitalist mode of production. This workers’ identity is founded on all the characteristics of the immediate process of production (i.e. assembly-line work, cooperation, the collective worker, the continuity of the process of production, sub-contracting, the segmentation of labour power) and all those of reproduction (work, unemployment, training and welfare). As such it is an identity founded on all the elements which make of the class a determination of the reproduction of capital itself (i.e. public services, the national delimitation of accumulation, creeping inflation and “the sharing of productivity gains”); all these elements which positioned the proletariat, socially and politically, as a national interlocutor formed a workers’ identity which challenged the hegemonic control and management of the whole of society. This workers’ identity which constituted the workers’ movement and structured class struggle, even integrating “really existing socialism” within the global division of accumulation, rested on the contradiction between, on the one hand, the creation and development of labour power put to work by capital in an increasingly collective and social manner, and on the other, the (increasingly) limited forms of appropriation by capital of this labour power in the immediate process of production and reproduction.
This is the conflictual situation which developed as workers’ identity — an identity which found its distinction and its immediate modalities of recognition (its confirmation) in the “large factory”, in the dichotomy between employment and unemployment, work and training, in the submission of the labour process to the collectivity of workers, in the link between wages, growth and productivity on a national level, in the institutional representations that all this implied, as much in the factory as at the level of the state, and, last but not least, in the social and cultural legitimacy and pride in being a worker. There was a self-presupposition of capital, in accordance with the concept of capital, but the contradiction between the proletariat and capital couldn’t situate itself at this level, in so far as within this self-presupposition there was a production and confirmation of a workers’ identity through which the class struggle structured itself as the workers’ movement.
The decomposition of programmatism contains the increasingly obvious impossibility of conceiving the revolution as a “growing-over”3 of that which the proletariat is in capitalist society, of its rising power as a workers’ movement. The process of revolution is practically and theoretically posed in terms of class autonomy, as so many ruptures with its integration, and of the defence of its reproduction. Self-organisation and autonomy become the revolution, to such an extent that the form suffices for the content.
Self-organisation, strong unions and the workers’ movement, all appeared in the same world of the revolution as affirmation of the class. The affirmation of the truly revolutionary being of the class which manifests itself in autonomy could not have the slightest basis in reality if it weren’t for the good de-alienated side of this world which was experienced as a strong workers’ movement “framing” the class. Self-organisation entails the self-organisation of struggle, thus the self-organisation of producers. In a word — liberated labour; in another word — value. This cycle of struggle culminated between the end of the 60s and the first half of the 70s. Practically and theoretically, autonomy was unleashed in every possible manner, from self-organised unions to insurrectionary autonomy. This world is now obsolete.
There is no restructuring of the capitalist mode of production without a workers defeat. This defeat was that of workers’ identity, of communist parties, of unionism; of self-management, self-organisation and autonomy. The restructuring is essentially counter-revolution. Through the defeat of a particular cycle of struggle — the one which opened in the aftermath of World War I — it is the whole programmatic cycle which reached its conclusion.
We have just briefly outlined the “thesis of programmatism.” For Dauvé and Nesic this thesis is “false in regard to the facts, and even more so in regard to the method, the attitude in relation to the world to be transformed.”4 Nevertheless, Dauvé and Nesic have understood it neither in regard to the facts nor the “method.” And as for the “attitude”…
The starting point for their refutation of the “thesis of programmatism” is a misunderstanding:
“From the 1960s onwards, a more and more visible resistance to work, sometimes to the point of open rebellion, has led quite a few revolutionaries to revisit the past from the point of view of the acceptance or rejection of work.”5
“A real critique of work was impossible in the 60s … Now things are completely different.”6
This observation is historically correct, but the misunderstanding resides in the fact that to understand the breakdown of programmatism as a crisis of work and its overcoming formulated as a “critique of work” is to remain within programmatism.
Given that the proletariat presented itself as a revolutionary class in the critique of all that which “articulates” it as a class of the capitalist mode of production, in the councilist and self-organisationalist vision the worm was already in the fruit. It popped its head out at the beginning of the 70s, with the ideology of self-negation of the proletariat and the critique of work. It was only by opposing itself to that which could define it as a class of the capitalist mode of production that the proletariat could be revolutionary. The “refusal of work”, the riots, lootings and strikes without demands, naturally became the supreme activity on the basis of which self-negation could take place. All that was needed was to self-organise, set up The Councils whilst no longer remaining “labourers” and “workers”: i.e. to square the circle.
Theoretical humanism allowed that which appeared as negation and refusal to be seen as overcoming. Dauvé and Nesic are examples of theoreticians blocked at this stage of theoretical production, not only because they understand neither the restructuring nor the new cycle of struggle, but most importantly because they are waiting for such things to resurface — the resurrection of a schema which was already in its own day an ideology of the failure of a cycle of struggle coming to an end. Just as the relation between the rising strength of the class and its autonomous affirmation expresses, in its own terms, the failure of programmatism, this same relation, in the form of the relation between self-organisation and self-negation, expresses the impossibility of the revolution, in its own terms, in the cycle of the decomposition of programmatism. Communism is not principally the abolition of work, it is only such within a theoretical system founded on the analysis of labour, that is to say on the relation between man and nature as the starting point of communist theory. What matters in reality are the social relations which determine human activity as labour — the point is thus the abolition of these relations and not the abolition of work. The “critique of work” is not able to positively address the restructuring as a transformation of the contradictory relation between classes. It can only address it negatively in terms of the “liquidation” or de-essentialisation of work.
For Dauvé and Nesic we are free of the “old workers’ movement” based on the “consecration of work” and “workers’ identity” etc., but this has resulted in no “revolutionary clarification” — in short we are no further down the road. It is obvious that “proletarian autonomy has not taken advantage of bureaucratic decline,” for they both belong to the same world of workers’ identity. Dauvé and Nesic attribute this liquidation exclusively to capital, as if the “struggles of ’68” had no role to play. Trapped in their normative problematic of the revolution (in fact an ideological result of the failure of the previous cycle) they see only the disappearance of the old and not the appearance of the new.
Today, the overcoming of revindicative struggles7 as revolutionary struggle — i.e. as communisation — is presaged whenever, in these struggles, it is its own existence as a class that the proletariat confronts. This confrontation takes place within revindicative struggles and is first and foremost only a means of waging these struggles further, but this means of waging them further implicitly contains a conflict with that which defines the proletariat. This is the whole originality of this new cycle of struggle. Revindicative struggles have today a characteristic that would have been inconceivable thirty years ago.
The proletariat is confronted by its own determination as a class which becomes autonomous in relation to it, becomes alien to it. The objectifications in capital of the unity of the class have become palpable in the multiplication of collectives and the recurrence of discontinuous strikes (the strikes of spring 2003 in France, the strike of the English postmen). When it appears that autonomy and self-organisation are no longer the perspective of anything, as with the transport strike in Italy or that of the workers at FIAT Melfi, it is precisely there that the dynamic of this cycle is constituted and the overcoming of revindicative struggles is presaged through a tension within revindicative struggles themselves.
To put unemployment and precarity at the heart of the wage relation today; to define clandestinity (TN: undocumented, black-market work) as the general situation of labour power; to pose — as in the direct-action movement — the social immediacy of individuals as the already existing foundation of the opposition to capital, even if this opposition describes the whole limit of this movement; to lead suicidal struggles like those of Cellatex and others of Spring and Summer of 2000;8 to refer class unity back to an objectivity constituted by capital, as in all the collectives and discontinuous strikes; to target all that defines us, all that we are, as in the riots in the French suburbs of 2005; to find in the extension of revindicative struggles the questioning of revindication itself, as in the struggles against the CPE; are contents, for all of these particular struggles, which determine the dynamic of this cycle within and through these struggles. The revolutionary dynamic of this cycle of struggle, which consists in the class producing and confronting in capital its own existence, that is to say putting itself in question as a class, appears in the majority of struggles today. This dynamic has its intrinsic limit in that which defines it as a dynamic: action as a class.
In Argentina, in the productive activities which were developed, principally within the Piquetero movement, something occurred which was at first glance disconcerting: autonomy appeared clearly for what it is — the management and reproduction by the working class of its situation in capital. The defenders of “revolutionary” autonomy would say that this is due to the fact that it didn’t triumph, although its triumph is precisely there. But at the moment within productive activity when autonomy appeared as it is, everything on which autonomy and self-organisation are founded was upset: the proletariat cannot find in itself the capacity to create other inter-individual relations (we deliberately do not speak of social relations) without overturning and negating what it is in this society, that is to say without entering into contradiction with autonomy and its dynamic. In the way that these productive activities were put into place — in the effective modalities of their realisation, in the conflicts between self-organised sectors — the determinations of the proletariat as a class of this society (property, exchange, division of labour) were effectively upset. Self-organisation was not superseded in Argentina, but the social struggles pointed beyond themselves to such a supersession; it is in this way that the revolution becomes credible as communisation. The generalisation of the movement was suspended, its continuation conditioned upon the ability of every fraction of the proletariat to overcome its own situation, that is to say the self-organisation of its situation.
To act as a class today means, on the one hand, to no longer have as a horizon anything other than capital and the categories of its reproduction, and on the other, for the same reason, to be in contradiction with one’s own reproduction as a class, to put it into question. These are two faces of the same action as a class. This conflict, this divergence9 in the action of the class (to reproduce itself as a class of this mode of production / to put itself into question) exists in the course of the majority of conflicts. To act as a class is the limit of the action of the proletariat as a class. This contradiction will be a practical question in need of resolution, a question much more difficult, risky and conflict laden than the limits of programmatism.
Revolutionary activity is the rupture and overcoming that Dauvé and Nesic are looking for, but a produced rupture and overcoming — it has nothing to do with the immediate and above all presuppositionless transformation of the “pater familias” into a “revolutionary romanticist.”10
The alliance between the autonomy of the proletariat and the negation of classes, the worker and man, which is an emergent ideology from a particular historical situation (that of May ’68 and its failure) has been presented by Dauvé and Nesic as the invariant substance of a “tension” within the proletariat “between the submission to work and the critique of work.”11 Their essentialist and invariant problematic of the proletariat and communism prevents them from having a historical conception of revolution and communism. The concept of programmatism is the basis of such a conception — a conception that they declare “false in regard to the facts, and even more so in regard to the method”.
Dauvé and Nesic make seven objections to the concept of programmatism:
The workers couldn’t have had the liberation of labour as their perspective because they didn’t want to work more for the boss. The argument is simply dumbfounding. Dauvé and Nesic don’t understand the “affirmation of labour” as the “liberation of labour”, that is to say the abolition of its situation of subordination. The “liberation of labour” is precisely the reverse of wanting to work more (for less money) for the boss. It is precisely not to consider wage labour as a positive reality, but as that which is to be abolished. This objection wouldn’t be worth citing if we didn’t find it repeated in inverted form in the ideology of the “social bond” or “adhesion” which is supposed to be one of the terms of the “tension” within the being of the proletariat.
This is passing a little rapidly over the fact that the workers themselves had founded these organisations and adhered to them in sometimes massive numbers. Besides, it was indeed the workers who, even if to defend their existence as workers (but how else could it be when one sets up workers’ councils?), created councils, soviets, occasionally experimented with self-management, took control of factories, participated in factory committees, set up cooperatives and founded organisations, parties and unions which had the dictatorship of the proletariat and the liberation of labour as their programme. If we say that the liberation of labour is the theory of the organisations and not the working class, first it is false, but even if it were true it would be necessary to explain the relation between the two.
The history of the Commune is supposed to show that all of the aforementioned rigmarole didn’t actually interest the workers. In his preface to Bilan, Dauvé says that during the Commune the communists, “being few in number,” were “cautious”.13 But it is the content of their programme that explains these “cautions”: the presentation of the affirmation of labour as “the final end of the movement” which must integrate “a long historical process”14; the fact that in their own programme the communists recognised the historical necessity of those (the bourgeois republicans) who were about to eliminate them. There was a lot to be “cautious” about.
The re-appropriation of production by the workers was in reality such a small priority for the Commune that its central committee announced as early as 21st of March 1871 (between the 18th and the 26th, thus before the re-appropriation by the republicans) in its Journal official: “The workmen, who produce everything and enjoy nothing, who suffer from misery in the midst of their accumulated products, the fruit of their work and their sweat… shall they never be allowed to work for their emancipation?”15 Commenting on this citation Marx writes: “it is proclaimed as a war of labour upon the monopolists of the means of labour, upon capital;”16 and a little bit further, “what the Commune wants is the social property which makes property the attribute of labour.”17
Leaving aside these overt calls for re-appropriation, the number of enterprises and workshops taken over by the workers is far from being insignificant, nor was the system the Commune employed of handing out contracts to the most “socially progressive” bid. In the end it is the nature of the struggle for the liberation of work that explains the small number of measures of the kind Dauvé and Nesic are looking for. This struggle of the working class is moulded by all the historical mediations of capitalist development. Marx attacks the “patronizing friends of the working class” who congratulate themselves that “after all, workmen are rational men and whenever in power always resolutely turn their back upon socialist enterprises! They do in fact neither try to establish in Paris a phalanstère nor an Icarie”.18 In a word, those who seek the immediate realisation of the liberation of labour which is, for Marx, merely “a tendency” in the measures taken by the Commune, remain at the stage of utopian socialism and have not understood that these objectives have now become real through their submission to the “historical conditions of the movement.”19
Although “the working class did not expect miracles from the Commune,”20 this working class knew that to “work out their own emancipation” they would have to “pass through long struggles,” a “series of historic processes,” in order for them to be recognised as “the only class capable of social initiative”21 — and recognised as such by the middle class, which was supposed to line up, with the Commune, on the side of the workers.
The “hesitant” and timid character of these measures has also another root. Toward the end of March, within the Commune, the workers were beaten in their own camp. If Marx doesn’t speak of the social significance of the transformation of the Commune’s organs of management, and if he pretends that the Commune is exclusively a workers’ government (“the finally achieved form of the dictatorship of the proletariat”) it is because, for him, the revolution is not where we, today, look for it — that is to say in the independence of proletarian action and in its capacity to abolish itself in abolishing the capitalist mode of production — but in the capacity of the proletariat to represent the whole of society and its future. Looked at closely, this other reason for “hesitancy” is not that different than the first. The historical development of working class practice implies its defeat as an autonomous class.
As with the Commune, the Russian Revolution of 1917 is supposed to confirm that “the proletarians hardly manifested any productive enthusiasm.” And nevertheless in an earlier text by Dauvé we find:
“…the movement of factory and workshop Committees saw a remarkable surge between February and October. These committees were most often created with the aim of obtaining the eight-hour day and wage increases. In April the provisional government recognized their right to represent the workers in their negotiations with bosses and the government, but little by little the committees tried to influence the direction of the factories which they took over in several cases.”22
“During this time [after October 1917, the Bolshevik leadership having inaugurated and structured workers’ control in Russia ‘in the interests of a planned direction for the national economy’] the Russian workers continued to animate the Committees which often tried to seize factories. As the January 1918 number of the Voice of the Metal Workers states: ‘the working class, from its nature, must occupy the central place in production and especially its organisation…’ But these efforts often lead to failure.”23
Of course one can change one’s opinion, but that’s not on the issue here — rather than the opinion about them, it is the historical facts themselves that have changed: that which existed exists no more.
One can equally refer to more “classical” historians:
“The natural consequence of the [February 1917] revolution was to exacerbate the economic struggles. In this context the factory committees became the veritable protagonists of the confrontation between Capital and Labour. They regulated the unions from behind. … Moreover, their leaders [the unions], mostly Mensheviks, took care to avoid intervening directly in the domain of production. It was thus the factory committees which immediately took this up, without a thought to the limits to which they were assigned by law. The workers of many factories had started to interrogate the questions of administration and technical direction, even to the point of chasing bosses and engineers out of the factory. When the employer decided to leave the key under the door it was common to the find the factory committee taking over the management of the establishment. … By launching the slogan of ‘workers’ control’, which constituted an essential aspect of their programme, the Bolsheviks fanned the flames of the spontaneous movement which grew from the radicalisation of the working masses. They thus encouraged — for tactical reasons which we will return to later — the libertarian and anarcho-syndicalist tendencies which appeared in the factory committees and which sought to establish a workers’ power in each separate enterprise, without making use of a centralised direction or taking into account the whole economic reality, thus a singularly confused programme. While the Mensheviks and the union leaders foresaw a state control of production, conforming to the generally accepted socialist principles, the factory committees generally stood up for the direct seizure of the enterprise and the self-management of the factories.”24
“Workers’ committees rapidly formed in the factories and a decree for the provisional government of the 22nd April 1917 gave them a legal existence in recognising their right to represent the workers in relation to the employers and the government. Their first demands were for the 8 hour day and a wage rise. But these demands didn’t delay in arriving at more or less organised attempts on the part of workers, at first sporadic, but soon more and more frequent, to intervene in the management and to take possession themselves of the factories … Nonetheless, that which no one foresaw, was that the seizure of the factories by the workers would be in the long term even less compatible with the establishment of a socialist order than the seizure of land by the peasants.”25
The last phrase by Carr contains the solution to the next question.
The first thing would be to explain why such “occasions” existed. But let’s let this pass and come to the objection itself. The emancipation of labour is here conceived as the measurement of value by labour time, the preservation of the notion of the product, and the framework of the enterprise and exchange. At those rare moments when an autonomous affirmation of the proletariat as liberation of labour arrives at its realisation (necessarily under the control of organisations of the workers’ movement), as in Russia, Italy and Spain, it immediately inverts itself into the only thing it can become: a new form of the mobilisation of labour under the constraint of value and thus of “maximum output” (as the CNT demanded of the workers of Barcelona in 1936) provoking ipso facto, though marginally, all the reactions of disengagement or workers’ resistance (cf. Seidman, M., Workers Against Work in Barcelona and Paris).
According to Dauvé the Russian Revolution of 1917 showed two fundamentally related things: firstly the workers “did little to restart production”26 and lacked productive enthusiasm, and secondly these workers found themselves “faced with new bosses,” and responded “as they usually do, by individual and collective resistance, active and passive.”27 We have dealt with the first point, let’s pass to the second. Why were the workers confronted with new bosses? Why was the revolution a failure? What is this “revolutionary dynamic” which, coexisting with the “crystallization of power” would define the Russian Revolution as a “contradictory process” which went through an involution?28 In all the texts of Dauvé and Nesic there is never a response to these questions. To respond to them they would have to qualify their “revolutionary dynamic”, specify it historically, along with its counter-revolution. Yet it is here that we discover the forbidden dimension of their theory. For it presupposes that though the development of capital can be historically specified, the revolution, just like the counter-revolution, must be as it is in itself for all eternity. This hiatus prevents them from arriving at any synthesis.
Dauvé and Nesic don’t want to see the self-management and the seizure of the factories in the ascendant phase of the Russian Revolution (February to October 1917). They don’t completely deny the facts, but class them in the range of activities subject to necessity (i.e. poverty). In their conception, given that the revolution must — by definition — be free, that which arises from necessity cannot be revolutionary. Thus there was never any revolutionary emancipation of labour because everything that could be seen as close to it in fact depends on the sordid activity of necessity. “What would be the worth of a revolution into which we were pushed against our wills?” ask Dauvé and Nesic in an earlier text.29 There is a “revolutionary élan”30, a “revolutionary dynamic”, but these must remain undefined: everything else is “necessity”. To define them would be to see the essential relation between the revolution and the Bolshevik counter-revolution, it would be to define the failure of revolution in terms of its very nature as liberation of labour, in terms of the seizing of production by the “associated producers”. In effect it would mean having to deal with that which is described by Anweiler, Carr or Voline; and even Dauvé and Nesic themselves…
These latter two report all the trouble that the Bolsheviks had in returning the factories to a state of order. In this way they contradict their previous assertion about the infrequency of workers seizing factories and taking over the management of production. The Bolshevik counter-revolution finds its source and flows naturally (which doesn’t mean without confrontation) from the course of the workers’ revolution. It is as Trotsky said “the seizure of power by the whole of the proletariat”, and simultaneously “workers’ control initiated in the interests of a planned regulation of the national economy” (Decree on Workers’ Control of 14-27 November 1917). If revolution is the control and management of the factories, the organisation of their relations, the circulation and exchange of the products of labour, it has nothing to oppose to the state, to value, to the plan and a renewed capitalist management, other than its rank and file soviet democracy — that is to say nothing, a pure form — or else resistance to the re-imposition of work.
Yet this is not without importance. The proletariat does not simply find itself once more in an ordinary capitalist enterprise. Its refusal of work is situated at the heart of programmatism. In its manifestation of what, on its own terms, is an internal contradiction and impossibility of the programmatic revolution, the refusal of re-imposed work anticipates that which will spell the death of programmatism at the end of the 1960s.
In the most general sense, in its internal contradiction and the practical process of its own impossibility, programmatism produces the terms of its overcoming. It is through all that which, practically and theoretically, exists for us today as this impossibility that we can relate ourselves to the history of past struggles and to the continuity of theoretical production. We don’t attribute to these struggles and theoretical productions the consciousness or the possibility to see another perspective, because we can only relate to them through the mediation of a restructuring of the capitalist mode of production which was their defeat. We don’t relate to these elements genealogically, but reproduce them in a problematic constituting a new paradigm of the contradiction between proletariat and capital.
It is true, there was never any “scope for a workers’ capitalism”, but that simply means that there was scope for a capitalist counter-revolution articulated within a workers’ revolution based upon the seizing of factories, liberating labour, and erecting the proletariat as ruling class; a counter-revolution that was able to turn the latter’s content back against it. If “the proletarians didn’t come up with an alternative to Bolshevik policy,”31 it is because Bolshevik policy was the accomplishment against them of their revolution.
Just as in Spain against the CNT, the UGT or the POUM, the workers have nothing to oppose to the management of enterprises by their organisations, because the programme that they apply is their own. The revolution as affirmation of the class implacably transforms into the management of capital, smoothly reverts into the counter-revolution to which it provides its own content. Faced with this ineluctable reversal of their own movement, overseen by their own organisations, the workers are thrown back to resisting work. The revolution as affirmation of the class finds itself confronted by a counter-revolution which has for its content that which justified the revolution itself: the rising power of the class in the capitalist mode of production, its recognition and integration in the reproduction of the capitalist mode of production. We could even call it the “dictatorship of the proletariat”.
We can only agree with Dauvé and Nesic when they write that “the Russian revolutionary crisis shows that as long as capital reigns, labour can’t be liberated and must be imposed upon the wage-earners.”32 And yet the social and historical mechanism of this dynamic must be made clear: the liberation of labour is impossible because it calls forth its own counter-revolution as capitalist organisation of work. Dauvé and Nesic dispel the problem saying: no revolution ever presented itself as such (except in the programme of the organisations). We have very briefly seen that this is false. Being unable to explain by what mechanism this impossibility imposes itself, they prefer to say that things didn’t happen. Anyone can proclaim that “in 1917-21, the alternative was between abolishing wage labour or perpetuating exploitation, with no possible third option”33 — it’s a nice phrase, but it expresses absolutely nothing; says nothing about the period of “revolutionary crisis”. In the sense that nobody — not a single social movement — posed such an opposition other than as the liberation of labour and the opening of a period of transition; the radical alternative, as Dauvé and Nesic present it, simply didn’t exist.
In Italy, as in Russia, being unable to explain what happened, Dauvé and Nesic decide that nothing happened. For the whole period one must start from two principal facts: (1) there was a powerful organised workers’ movement, which (2) had as a programme the affirmation/emancipation of labour (the workers’ creating factory councils, etc.). These two major elements define the period’s content. Faced with the reversal that they suffer, the workers are disarmed in the sense that that which is taken over by the organisations is in fact the perspective, now turned against them, that they themselves advance from their own ranks.
It is difficult to regard the articles and reports of Malatesta on the situation in Italy as merely a series of militant lies. On the 28th of June 1922, in l’Umanità Nova, Malatesta writes: “The metal workers started the movement over the question of wages. It turned out to be a strike of a new kind. Instead of abandoning the factories, they stayed in them without working, guarding them night and day against any lockout. But we were in 1920. All of proletarian Italy was trembling with revolutionary fever, and the movement rapidly changed character. The workers thought it was the moment to definitively take over the means of production. They armed themselves for defence, transformed numerous factories into veritable fortresses, and began to organise production for themselves.”34
In Italy once more it is the revolutionary perspective of emancipation, of “seizing the factories”, which allowed the state and the bourgeoisie to retake control of the situation (with the violent intervention of the fascists). The number of occupations decline after the 25th of September 1920 with the signing of the accord between Aragonna, chief of the CGL, and the government of Giolitti:
“the famous decree on the control of the factories is a joke, because it gives birth to a new band of bureaucrats who, although they come from your ranks, will not defend your interests, but only their position, because they seek to combine your interests with those of the bourgeoisie, which is to try to set a wolf to tend a goat.”35
In l’Umanità Nova of the 10th September 1920, under the title To the Metal Workers, Malatesta writes:
“Enter into relations between factories and with the railway workers for the provision of raw materials; come to agreements with cooperatives and with the people. Sell and exchange your products without dealing with ex-bosses.”36
“Sell and exchange your products”: in the very injunction of Malatesta to pursue and deepen revolutionary combat resides its failure and reversal into counter-revolution. The same worker who would applaud Malatesta will the very next day press for slowing down the work rate in “the enterprise in the hands of the workers”. To take over the factories, emancipate productive labour, to make labour-time the measure of exchange, is value, is capital. As long as the revolution will have no other object than to liberate that which necessarily makes the proletariat a class of the capitalist mode of production, workers’ organisations which are the expression of this necessity will employ themselves to make it respected. Being unable to hold onto the articulation of these elements, Dauvé and Nesic have decided, against all the evidence, that the workers’ never had the perspective or practice of the emancipation of labour. What is more, although for Dauvé and Nesic it was indeed the case that all of that was true of the organisations — to deny this would be very difficult — it is still necessary to explain who could have put such ideas into the heads of the organisations. The facts which were still visible in When Insurrections Die, and even more in the Preface to Bilan, have here disappeared. Nothing happened, move on, there is nothing to see.
Dauvé and Nesic see the problem without being able to connect the terms. In their argumentation they ceaselessly confuse the effective impossibility of the liberation of labour with its non-existence, just as they confuse the “liberation of labour” with “the liberating power of labour.”
It is contentious to try to separate revindicative struggles in a given period from revolution and communism as they are defined in that same period. It is hardly credible to say that in 1848 the workers only struggled against the worsening of their conditions, that the insurgents only “rose to survive”37, and that the struggles betrayed no perspective of the reorganisation of society around the “organisation of labour” and its generalisation, that is to say liberation, by the working class. Such incredibility is amply demonstrated by a glance at the political expressions of the Parisian working class in that year:
“Marche, a worker, dictated the decree [decree on the right to work, 25 February 1848] by which the newly formed Provisional Government pledged itself to guarantee the workers a livelihood by means of labour, to provide work for all citizens, etc. And when a few days later it forgot its promises and seemed to have lost sight of the proletariat, a mass of 20,000 workers marched on the Hôtel de Ville with the cry: Organise labour! Form a special Ministry of Labour.”38
To “rise up in order to survive” is an expression as lacking in meaning in 1848 as it is in 2007. Every insurrection and even every strike, however “modest”, always exists in a certain period of the contradiction between the proletariat and capital. To this degree, the defence of physical survival has no more existence in itself, is no more an ahistorical invariant, than is communism “in its deep content”.
In the form of the National Workshops the “defence of survival” becomes a question of social regime: “The right to work is, in the bourgeois sense, an absurdity, a miserable, pious wish. But behind the right to work stands the power over capital; behind the power over capital, the appropriation of the means of production, their subjection to the associated working class, and therefore the abolition of wage labour, of capital, and of their mutual relations. Behind the “right to work” stood the June insurrection.”39 The Parisian workers “rose up to survive” and this insurrection for survival contained: “the organisation of labour,” and the “submission of the means of production to the associated working class”. A precise study of the insurrection of June shows that it was substantially supported by the unemployed workers of the National Workshops. Yet one finds in far greater number those who were not directly touched by the closure of the National Workshops: the local workers and the professions who had also been the most virulent during the quasi general strike which hit Paris in 1840.
On this connection between immediate struggles, political reform and social revolution, the most important movement of the period is without doubt Chartism. About this Dauvé and Nesic say not a word. For doing so would make it difficult to suggest that the aspiration to re-appropriate the means of production by the associated workers was only an ideology which had no correspondence in the practice or mobilisation of the workers, and that the resistance to the worsening of exploitation is a neutral and purely quantitative activity.
For Dauvé and Nesic 1848 marks a turning point in the history of workers’ struggles:
“1848 tolled the knell of the utopia of a wage-labour capital, of a working class that would become the ruling class and then the unique or universal class through the absorption of capital in associated labour. From then on, via a growing union movement, the workers will only be concerned with their share of the wage system, they won’t try to compete with the monopoly of capital owned by the bourgeoisie, but to constitute themselves as a monopoly of labour power. The programme of a popular capitalism was on the wane.”40
Thus that which never existed nonetheless had an existence prior to 1848. The peculiarity of eclecticism is to fail to perceive that the elements which one juxtaposes may contradict each other. This consideration of the pre-1848 period is all the more surprising given that this period of “wage-labour capital” is for them, in another respect, essentially that of the expression of communism in “its deep content”: the proletariat of the human community, not yet bogged down in the defence of the wage (see below).
Thus the proletariat no longer attempted, after 1848, to become a ruling class. With a wave of the theoretical wand, Dauvé and Nesic manage to make the Commune vanish; they imply that all the post-1848 texts of Marx are apocryphal; they convince us that revolutionary syndicalism never existed. Even German Social Democracy, with its rising power of the class and the theory of the spontaneous socialization of capital leading to socialism, fails to fit with the need of Dauvé and Nesic to flatten class struggle in the extreme for fear of recognizing the infamous programmatism; even Bernstein and Hilferding disappear. The project of “a working class take over of industrialization” is over in 1848, just as that of “a working class that would become the ruling class.”41 Of course! If it didn’t come from such good authors one would suspect simply ignorance, here one must also suspect the theoretical impasse of a discourse which after being tempted by an indeterminate “revolutionary élan” has to silence itself from fear of allowing it to be determined. Once again: move on, there is nothing to see!
If we can consider that 1848 is a break, it is only in the measure that that which was an alternative project, that is to say, able to coexist with bourgeois society (cooperatives etc.), became after ’48 a political project presupposing the reversal of bourgeois society. Far from “tolling the knell” of workers’ emancipation and the liberation of labour (articulated, of course, with the revindicative struggles of the working class), 1848 marked the generalisation of this project in a struggle of class against class.
And once again we find an epoch where that which never existed attained its apogee. Dauvé and Nesic concede that there might have been a period of the workers’ composition of a world of free labour:
“the aspiration to set up the workers as the ruling class and to build a workers’ world was at its highest in the heyday of the labour movement, when the Second and Third Internationals were more than big parties and unions: they were a way of life, a counter-society… Workers’ or ‘industrial’ democracy was an extension of a community (both myth and reality) … that shaped working class life from the aftermath of the Paris Commune to the 1950s or 60s.”42
Here is a remarkable concession, but one which doesn’t recognize that this organised workers’ movement was also a counter-revolutionary force. Dauvé and Nesic want to insist that this “workers’ world” which shaped the life of the working class was just a “utopia of skilled labour”.43 Yet even in Germany between 1919 and 1921, where for Dauvé and Nesic this movement of skilled workers had gone the furthest, “there were hardly any attempts to take over production in order to manage it. Whatever plans they may have nurtured, in practice neither the Essen and Berlin workers nor those in Turin put work at the centre of society, even of a socialist one.”44
We’ve already seen in the case of Italy and Russia that if we shouldn’t confuse the activity of workers with the activity of organisations and their programmes, it is completely insufficient to satisfy oneself with the distinction. When the principle factory organisations are grouped into two unions (AAUD and AAUDE) that together counted several hundred thousand members (not counting those adhering to the revolutionary unions) the programme of the KAPD is not an invention of the theoreticians of the KAPD. It is the only perspective that the struggle itself allows. In the period about which Dauvé and Nesic speak (in fact since 1848), the struggle for the emancipation of labour passes by a political struggle; that is, the abolition of existing society (whatever form this takes, seizure of power or abolition of the state) and establishment of the proletariat as a ruling class (which cannot fail to turn back on itself in the very course of its success as counter-revolution). The workers of Essen, Berlin and Turin “put work at the centre of society” by their very uprising. What else is the power of the councils where it momentarily establishes itself other than the power of workers as workers? Are we supposed to believe that the workers sought power for its own sake?
The seizure of state power, the political victory, is the necessary preamble, even the first act, of the emancipation of labour, the proletariat becoming a ruling class. In Germany between 1918 and 1923, in Italy in 1920, the political struggles for the power of the working class, the dictatorship of the proletariat, had for their content the affirmation of the proletariat as a ruling class and through this the generalization of its condition. Under the pretext that they see no (or very few) self-managed factories, Dauvé and Nesic deny that the political struggle had the affirmation of the proletariat as a ruling class for its object, that is to say, the emancipation of labour.
We can’t help but note that in these pages on the “utopia of skilled labour”, Dauvé and Nesic, for the second time, and contrary to their official religion, link a certain practice of the proletariat to a certain level of development of capital, that which they condemn in the theoretical conclusion of their text. This link is made several times in their text, with the artisan, the manufacturing worker, the skilled worker, the mass worker. That which Dauvé and Nesic refuse to attribute to the contradiction between the proletariat and capital and its overcoming — to be a history — they accord to the action of historically existing workers. In a kind of impoverished Operaismo, they confer to “class composition” that which they can’t allow for revolution and communism.
The seventh objection is not exactly of the same nature as the others. It applies to the struggles at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s. That is to say, to the period when programmatism is at the end of its course, the period in which we are ready to recognise that the affirmation of the proletariat and the liberation of labour are no longer the content and perspective of the class struggle. As a consequence, we could, to an extent, agree with the comments on these struggles, and at a push this objection would not be one at all. Yet only to an extent… and for two reasons. Firstly, Dauvé and Nesic recognise no historical break, for history is the looming absence in their whole normative horizon; the examples only succeed one another in a chronological order by the simple habit of thought and presentation — they could be presented in any other order without having the slightest influence on the “demonstration”. Secondly, in accordance with their permanent denial of the reality of anything which could be seen as affirmation of labour, they fail to see that the overcoming of programmatism, very real in the struggles of this period, still takes place within programmatism.
The turn at the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies was simply the breakdown of programmatism. “May ’68” was the liquidation of all the old forms of the workers’ movement. The revolution was no longer a question of the establishment of the proletariat as a ruling class which generalises its situation, universalises labour as a social relation, and the economy as the objectivity of a society founded on value. But the “May ’68” period doesn’t simply remain in this impossibility of being a programmatic revolution.
On the one hand we had a strong workers’ movement with solid roots, the confirmation by capital of a workers’ identity, a recognised strength of the class but a radical impossibility to transform this strength into an autonomous force and into a revolutionary affirmation of the class of labour. On the other, this impossibility was positively the extension of a revolt against all social reproduction, a revolt through which “the proletariat negated itself”.
The revolution could only be the negation of the worker’s condition, but it was necessary to seek it, not in the relation between proletariat and capital, but in the universality of alienation. Universal, and to this extent human, alienation. Through real subsumption capital had subjected all social reproduction, all aspects of life. In encompassing the whole of everyday life, the revolution was the negation of the proletarian condition. Through the universality of its negation the revolt became autonomised from its real conditions, it appeared to no longer flow directly from the situation of the working class, but from the universal alienation of which this situation was the consummation, the condensation.
The revolt against the condition of the working class, revolt against every aspect of life, was caught in a divergence. It could only express itself, only become effective, in turning against its own foundations, the workers’ conditions, but not in order to suppress them, for it didn’t find in itself the relation to capital which could have been that suppression, but in order to separate itself from them. “May ’68” thus remained on the level of a revolt.
The workers fled the factories occupied by the unions, the youngest among them joined the student struggle, May ’68 was the critique in acts and often “with the feet” of the revolution as the rising strength and affirmation of the class. The workers only entered the factories at the moment of the return to work, often to oppose themselves violently to it. Here we are in agreement with the few remarks of Dauvé and Nesic on May ’68. Where we diverge is in the fact that for them such a thing is not a historical product, but merely fits into the long list of examples that they evoke. It is supposed to have always been this way, from the simple fact of what the proletariat is and what the revolution must be.
For Dauvé and Nesic the end of the sixties is prosperity and the critique of prosperity (consumer society, everyday life, alienation), it is the workers’ movement and the “critique of work” — the enigma is solved. The revolution must be both a workers’ revolution and a human revolution, but only “workers’” because in the worker it is the human that is negated. As a worker the proletarian has the possibility to smash this society, as a human, to construct the new one. To remain at this position is to remain within an ideology born of the failure of ’68. During that whole period, in Italy, France and elsewhere, class struggles expressed but failed to overcome the limits and impasses of the previous cycle, that of workers’ identity, of autonomy, of self-organisation, that which formed the very definition of the revolutionary dynamic, whilst today they form its limit.
This contradiction internal to class struggle appeared in Italy, from the mid-sixties, in a very concrete manner, in the extension of struggles beyond the factories. On the one hand the central figure of the Italian working class, that through which all class struggle was structured, is that of the industrial triangle Milan–Turin–Genoa, and, in this triangle, principally the productive workers of the big manufacturers. On the other hand, such a concentration implies, and only exists through, the socialisation and massification of the working class beyond the immediate process of production. The workers’ struggle is also the town, transport, housing, all of social life. By encompassing all of everyday life, class struggle becomes a refusal of the worker’s condition, but it only encompasses all social life from the basis of the factory, the very extension only exists under the leadership, the tutorship, of the worker of the large factory: Turin is FIAT. This movement contains a contradiction between, on the one hand, the central figure of workers’ identity, still dominating and structuring class struggle, on the basis of which this movement exists, and, on the other hand, the struggle over the entirety of reproduction which can thus not give everything that it contains, cannot put into question the condition of the worker itself. The struggle over the wage is the place of this contradiction, the place it becomes concrete. That which the workerists, in a programmatic perspective, theorised as “political wage” or “self-valorisation of the working class” was, as a practice, as a particular struggle, the contradiction in which, on the basis of the very situation of the worker and within this, the reproduction of the worker as such was put into question. The slogan of workers’ power in the factories coexisted with the refusal to live outside as a worker and to be employed as a worker in that very factory. The class struggle developed within that highly contradictory and unstable configuration in which it is labour which refuses to function, in capitalism, as labour power.
Autonomy can only be programmatic, because it is by its very nature workers’ autonomy. The movement of ’69 is still a movement of the affirmation of the proletariat and the emancipation of labour, it is its dominant characteristic. It is only on the basis of this dominant characteristic that one can understand that it contains within it that which subsequently puts it into question, renders it impossible. It was the same workers who committed sabotage and organised the marches in the factories who regrouped in the CUB as in Pirelli, or who found themselves in the student-worker assemblies in Turin. It is in this situation that all the originality and importance, as much historical as theoretical, of this period lay.
Today every revindicative struggle of whatever size or intensity is self-organised and autonomous; self-organisation and autonomy can be opposed to the unions, but always remain merely a moment of unionism. We have passed from one cycle of struggle to another.
But for Dauvé and Nesic it is not enough to say that nothing happened, it is necessary to add that those for whom what happened was the revolution, as defined historically in its strength and its failure in its own terms, commit a methodological error: determinism. Any historical critique which fails to acknowledge the invariant substance and says that revolution and communism are historical is branded with the infamous epithet.
The “methodological error” of Théorie Communiste (not named) is supposed to consist in believing that there is a “situation” or a “period” in the history of the capitalist mode of production, and therefore of class struggle (but this “therefore” is, as we shall see, for Dauvé and Nesic another methodological error), which will assure the victory of the communist revolution. We finally confront the famous determinist devil.
Dauvé and Nesic do not see that the “error” they denounce is only an “error” if we accept all their presuppositions. Only if we suppose that the communist revolution is a given and known substance since the beginning of the class struggle within capitalism.45 If we accept that the proletariat would have been able to do in 1968 what it did in 1848, in the Paris of 1830 what it did in Bologna in 1977, that the insurgents of the Commune failed because they didn’t do what the SI had said nonetheless had to be done, it is obvious that TC is wrong.
The principle “error” is necessarily accompanied by an accessory error. We are supposed to have looked to capital and its development to resolve our problems in our place. This is to assume that it is capital alone which suppressed workers’ identity, the “old workers’ movement”, and, as a consequence, that which we call programmatism. As if the struggles at the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies had nothing to do with it; as if the re-appropriation of the themes of workers’ identity in the radical democratic movement and the practical critique of this radical democratism by the direct action movement are all for nothing. Even if we accepted that capital suppressed workers’ identity, it could only be as a counter-revolution, that is to say against the preceding revolution and not as an objective tendency which would “give” us ready-made new “conditions”, without us participating in their emergence.
We will develop all these questions around the three synthetic themes that Dauvé and Nesic expose: there is no direct link between proletarian action and the degree of the development of capital; the “being” of the proletariat; and the “reasons for past failures”.
“If the ‘being’ of the proletariat theorized by Marx is not just a metaphysics, its content is independent of the forms taken by capitalist domination. The tension between the submission to work and the critique of work has been active since the dawn of capitalism. Of course the realization of communism depends on the historical moment, but its deep content remains invariant in 1796 and in 2002.”46
If there is a “being” of the proletariat, and moreover a being on which the “realization of communism” depends, the revolution is inevitable. No amount of theoretical tinkering around the “historical moment” as the conjunctural condition of the becoming actual of this “being” will change anything. The “being” will always find its way through contingency and circumstance. Communism “in its deep content” will remain invariant in 1796 and 2002. All that remains is to name that “deep content”, and, in passing, indicate a little contingent dross due to the “historical moment” of 1796 or 2002. But how do we separate the dross from the “invariant”?
Contrary to what Dauvé and Nesic say, if this “being” is “not just a metaphysics” then it is not “independent of the forms taken by capitalist domination”. How could its “being” be independent when the proletariat is only a class of the capitalist mode of production? The “being” is held to be independent of the forms taken by capitalist evolution, but apparently the “realization of communism” is “of course” dependent on the “historical moment”. Here we are knee-deep in the metaphysical relation par excellence: that of the essence and its conditions, of the tendency and its realisation. Dauvé and Nesic are careful to avoid explaining the relation between this “being” and the “historical moment”. It goes without saying, just like the spontaneous idealism with which we think unawares. It is a case of the ideology of the launch window. They believe themselves to have overcome determinism because, as Dauvé writes in Human, all too Human: “nothing guarantees that a communist movement will be able or want to take advantage of it, but the possibility is there.”47 A “possibility” which may or may not be actualised… in other words: objective conditions.
“History does not prove any direct causal link between a degree of capitalist development, and specific proletarian behaviour.”48 The “Metropolitan Indians” of Bologna could have taken the Winter Palace, and the unemployed of the National Workshops could have set up workers’ councils. Dauvé and Nesic have conserved the entire theoretical structure of determinism, but the key element has become impossible to maintain: the identification of the “development of capital” with “revolutionary activity”, that is, the rising strength of the class in the capitalist mode of production. As a result, they find themselves with a class activity which floats in the void, condemned to self-determination, that is to say indetermination. Such a conclusion cannot be expressed as such; one thus needs determination, but not too much, “invariance” and the “historical moment”. And above all lots of “freedom”, because the development of capitalism has been paradoxically maintained in its objective density.
The development of capitalism is nothing more than the contradiction between the proletariat and capital; there is no “link”, neither rigid, nor fluid, nor direct. In the end Dauvé and Nesic tinker between determinism and liberty, necessity and possibility, invariance and contingency, freedom with a little determinacy and determinism with a little freedom. One must allow the proletariat the “freedom” to rise to its “historic task”.49 What a strange freedom, and a strange critique of determinism, which can speak of an “historic task”. In the end it is their own determinism that Dauvé and Nesic are seeking to exorcize.
To look for the cause of revolutions and their failures in the relation between the proletariat and capital as they existed, is that to do anything other than to look for them in the practice of proletarians? What would this practice be if not the relation to capital? What would this development of capital be if not this relation? To demand that we search for the causes of “our failures” only in the “activity of proletarians” is to see the development of capital as a frame to which we attribute more or less effectivity, but always as a sum of conditions. Dauvé and Nesic have conserved all the fundamental separations of objectivism and determinism, their only “originality” is to have refused the causal link which unites the elements. This renders their production incoherent and eclectic, and their writing full of hesitation and oscillation (yes/but, it is such and such/but of course we know that nonetheless…). And yet it is we, for whom the “solution” is neither a presupposition nor ineffable, but a real historical production, and of the only history that exists, that of the capitalist mode of production, who are supposed to be “determinists”.
When we define exploitation as the contradiction between the proletariat and capital, we define that contradiction as a history. The stage of the cycle of accumulation is not an external condition of victories or defeats, a conjuncture. Accumulation is part of the definition of the proletariat and its contradiction with capital. The proletariat is defined in the totality of the moments of exploitation, in the sense that it implies its reproduction and produces the conditions of the latter. To define the proletariat in the three moments of exploitation (the coming together of labour power and capital and the buying and selling of labour power, the absorption of living labour by objectified labour in the immediate process of production where surplus value is formed, the transformation of surplus value into additional capital) is to understand that the development of capital is not the realisation or the condition of the class contradiction which opposes the proletariat to capital, it is the real history of this contradiction. The contradiction does not dress itself in different forms, because it is nothing other than these forms. Those who would take umbrage at that, assuming it means capital would be doing the work in our (the revolutionary proletarians’) place, have understood nothing of what a social relation means. All this also implies the historicity of the content of communism. Communism is historical in that it is in relation with the immediate course of each cycle of struggle. When we say that the revolution and communism can only be immediate communisation, that doesn’t mean that communism has finally presented itself today as it always really was or as it always should have been.
To all those who say that 1848, 1917, 1968 etc. ended up in a way that could have been averted, we have a right to demand that just for once they tell us what made them end up where they did other than by saying that they ended up where they did because they didn’t end up where they could have. Could anything else have happened? We don’t know and we don’t care. The question is meaningless. That which didn’t happen leaves the domain of thought to enter the domain of faith and madness. The ideology of the possible looks to the past and says “this could have been or not been”, it consists in considering as contingent, on the basis of the subsequent period, that which was essential to the previous period. From this substitution is born the belief in the invariant as the substantial core which results from the movement.
If the restructuring of the contradiction between the proletariat and capital resolves to a large extent the contradictions and limits of programmatism (not without the participation of workers’ struggles), it neither gets us closer to a purity of this contradiction, nor a purity of capital. What creates this illusion is the fact that the capitalist mode of production always restructures itself according to what it is, and overcomes the limits which had been its own (its own conditions of valorisation and reproduction in a given moment). The restructuring is a supersession which, though unforeseeable (constituted along the tempestuous flow of struggles), cannot infringe upon the nature of capital. Once the restructuring is accomplished, the previous characteristics of capital appear for the next period as contingent, non-indispensable in relation to the nature of capital, but they were certainly not contingent for the previous period. It is in this way that the becoming appears predetermined as a march towards purity. This is the trap into which fall all the ideologues who, not being able to conceive of history beyond teleology, choose to suppress it.
What is more, the question as to the “ultimate” character of this cycle of struggle has no solution, for strictly speaking it cannot be posed theoretically (and it never has been, for any cycle of struggle). Does that mean that the revolution and communisation are now the only future? Again this is a question without meaning, without reality. The only inevitability is the class struggle though which we can only conceive of the revolution of this cycle of struggle, and not as a collapse of capital leaving a space open, but as an historically specific practice of the proletariat in the crisis of this period of capital. It is thus this practice which renders the capitalist mode of production irreproducible. The outcome of the struggle is never given beforehand. It is self-evident that revolution cannot be reduced to a sum of its conditions, because it is an overcoming and not a fulfilment. It is communisation which renders the contradiction between the proletariat and capital irreproducible.
In the last resort, the independence of communism “in its deep content” in relation to the development of the contradiction between the proletariat and capital has its ontological argument: that of the philosophical communism of 1843-46.
Philosophical communism, which invokes Man and Species, characterises the quasi totality of theoretical production in the first half of the 1840s. For the “Germans” its point of departure is the critique of religion. This critique, as Marx himself applied it, is the matrix of the critique of all alienations (as Marx affirms in the first sentence of the Introduction of 1843). It follows that man’s rediscovery of his essence in the critique and abolition/overcoming of religion is, according to him, the matrix of all abolitions (money, work etc.): the return of the subject to itself as Community, Species Being, Man. Stirner was right to say that Man had replaced God and that it is the worst of all religions.
Man externalises his own powers, he objectifies them. It was thus necessary to rediscover the anthropological nature of religion in order to abolish it. Of course what was found there was the mechanism of every alienation, abolition, and overcoming for philosophical communism, including the abolition of labour which, in becoming “self-manifestation”, was intended to reconcile the essence of the proletariat as a person with his immediate being. The abolition of money, of the state, followed the same logical mechanism. The Feuerbachian critical apparatus was generalised. The result of the abolition/overcoming is merely the true form of the essence of man. There is only a historical development and contradiction as an inverted form of the true community, which is already the truth of this inverted form. Alienation is merely its own becoming for itself.
“Labour is man’s coming to be for himself within alienation or as an alienated man.”50 Alienated labour or alienation of the essence of man are thus only moments of the identity in-itself of labour and its objects, of man and his externalised forces, in the process of becoming an identity for-itself. The loss is only a form of the identity, its necessary becoming in order to rediscover itself (here lies all the limits of the concept of alienation). Against all the analysis of Capital or the Grundrisse in which we rediscover these expressions of the alienation of labour or its product, here the point of departure is not a social relation, but a subject (man) which divides itself in its identity with itself. It’s in this sense that labour is destined to be abolished, because labour exists here only to produce its abolition.
In The German Ideology the abolition of labour is deduced from two themes: the virtual universality of the proletariat in relation to the history of the division of labour as universalisation of productive life; the contradiction in the life of the individual between its existence as a person and its existence as a member of a class. This second theme can be seen as derived from the first. Potentially universal, labour can no longer be a “means”.
Those who think that Marx and Engels, between 1843 and 1846, with the abolition of labour and the other abolitions, grasped what we are now able to conceive of communist revolution don’t realise that it is the very fact of conceiving the revolution as abolition of labour which distinguished their vision from ours. The abolition of labour, for Marx and many others, was the emancipation of the proletariat not, of course, as an affirmation of labour, but as a movement of the affirmation of a class which, because in the old world it is “rid of the old world”51, represents the movement which abolishes existing conditions: communism. But since simultaneously, as action, communism exists as the definition of a class of this society, it follows that it is its independent organisation, its reinforcement and its pursuit of its own ends, the defence of its interests in this society which becomes identified with communism itself. Less than a year after The German Ideology, the abolition of labour explicitly becomes the “liberation of labour”52, because the “abolition of labour” was the emancipation of the proletariat and the emancipation of the proletariat was its actual existence as action in the present society. At the moment when the old theory became coherent and concrete it flies into pieces.
The years 46-47 do not mark the passage between two theories of communism or revolution: a “radical” theory which, from the moment of its entry on the historical stage, is supposed to have announced, thanks to a particular situation of the proletariat, the quintessence of Communism, and a theory of the proletariat as class of the capitalist mode of production destined to defend its interests within it, a theory of the defence of the wage. It marks a passage from a philosophy of the proletariat, the revolution and communism, to a theory of the proletariat, the revolution and communism. This latter is not our own, but the former still less so. In this philosophical communism, under the same words, the concepts are absolutely different from our own, are inscribed in a completely different problematic. It is illusory to try to use some formulas as if they could be applied to class struggle as it exists today.
The revolutionary humanism of the “young” Marx, which he shares with all the theoreticians of the epoch, amounts, in the period which comes to a close in 1848, to the belief that capitalism and the domination of the bourgeoisie is only an ephemeral state (Marx broke from this position before ’48). The proletariat is only a class of transition, an unstable social form resulting from the decomposition of society.
From the moment the contradiction was posed, its overcoming was supposed to be imminent. What escaped Marx and Engels at that early point was that capital could be the development of the contradictions which give rise to it, that they could be its raison d’être, that which nourishes it, that they could be the principle of its accumulation. They didn’t see development as part of the contradiction, it was only anecdotal in relation to it, and could well not be from the moment that The Contradiction is. But it is thus the contradiction itself which is purely formal because its development is unnecessary.
We could treat the history of capital as unimportant because in 1845 (or 1867) and in 2007 it is identical in itself, and conclude that what was said of communism at its beginning is fixed in stone. But those who believe that the history of capital is without importance in the sense that, from the beginning, it is as it is in itself, have not yet managed to become Hegelian. Parmenides suffices. They leave the development alongside being as something which doesn’t form part of it, something accidental. Contrary to the Marx of 1843-46, if we can and must speak of revolution today as the abolition of work (and all the rest) we do it on the basis of the internal contradictions of the capitalist mode of production, of exploitation, of the situation of the proletariat, without any reference to the “person” of the proletariat, to a “human essence”, to “man as community”. We are in contradiction with capital on the basis of what we are, that is to say of what capital is, and not from what we could be, a potential which would somehow already exist as suffering. It is the breakdown of programmatism which, at the end of the sixties and beginning of the seventies, momentarily resurrected the very conditions of its emergence as if they could also be those of its overcoming. We momentarily all became Feuerbachians again, …some of us remained so. They have thus made of an ideology born of the failure of ’68, the eternal formula of the communist revolution.
The question of the “being” of the proletariat was raised and criticised at the beginning of the previous section. Here we consider more closely the central role given to labour in the “tension” within this “being”.
“The tension between the submission to work and the critique of work has been active since the dawn of capitalism”. There we have it: the “being” of the proletariat. On the one side: the “adherence” and “investment” which come with the wage relation, yet also the famous “anthropological dimension” of work53; but the first wouldn’t be able to function without the second, the other side: the desire for “evasion” and “critique” of work. But can one oppose an “anthropological dimension”? No. In the “tension” defined by Dauvé and Nesic the “anthropological dimension” effectively possesses the status of a mediation. It is that which permits the “adherence” of the worker to his work, but simultaneously, combined this time with the “rejection” of this work, that which opens other social horizons.
As always, if we have a “revolutionary being” this means that something in this being is the seed of its overcoming. In the revolution, the evasion and critique of work must be combined with adherence in so far as the former is also anthropological.
Dauvé and Nesic have uncovered the “secret” and the “mystery” over which Marx slaved away all his life: the “integration” of the proletariat with the “triumphant and destructive march of capital”.54 Such “enslavement” and “integration” is supposed to be founded on the anthropological nature of work which is prevented from rejecting its enslavement by the fetishism of commodities which “veils the social relations producing capital”.55 For Dauvé and Nesic capital is not a relation or production which defines us, but something which makes us adhere. The social relation explains why we enter it, but then the whole problem is there: we no more enter a social relation than we adhere to it. Fetishism and its veil are necessary to a problematic for which the social definition of classes, or more trivially individuals, is a matter of adherence. However, it isn’t as exchangers that proletarians and capitalists confront each other, but as poles of a social relation, as classes.
It is the relation of exploitation and its reproduction, the capital relation, which includes exchange, and not the other way around. It is because it is a relation of exploitation that, if we want to put it like that, “capitalism imposes daily in real life and impresses on our minds: the economy as something obvious and inevitable, the necessity of exchanging commodities, of buying and selling labour.”56 But then it’s not a kind of blackmail, an imposition we must obey “…if we wish to avoid want, misery and dictatorship,” that intergrates us into the “destructive march of capital.” We are not intergrated by the fetishism of commodities (which is different to that of capital, i.e. the autonomisation of the elements of production in their relation to profit) but by the very structure of the social relation which is our own, exploitation — a relation which has turned exchange into an immanent moment of the domination of living labour by objectified labour. The possibility of tearing away the “mystifying appearance of the transaction” is situated within the contradictions of exploitation, the abolition of exploitation is not dependent on the tearing of the veil. If we read Dauvé and Nesic closely it seems that the “social bond” is for them what authorises the reproduction of capital.57 Everything is inverted and appears as if the actors of capitalist society imagine their belonging to society as an environment. The “social system” is based on those it enslaves because the fetishism of commodity exchange veils the social relation productive of capital. The point is to overcome “the economy as something obvious and inevitable.”
The “social bond” is always the reproduction of the capitalist social relation, always the self-presupposition as result of the contradiction between the classes in the sense that capital is always the dominant pole, assuring and constraining reproduction. In reality capitalism is only “based on those it enslaves” to the extent that “those it enslaves” exist only in the “enslavement” which defines them. They won’t get out of this slavery by tearing away a “veil”, but only by abolishing this slavery, by abolishing themselves. This is only possible due to the contradictory process of this enslavement for capital itself. The contradiction between the proletariat and capital is a contradiction for the very thing for which it is the dynamic: the capitalist mode of production. It’s in this sense that it is a contradiction which can lead to its own abolition. Capitalism is not only “based on those it enslaves”, but it is also in the very nature of this enslavement that the capacity for the latter to become revolutionary resides. It is the object as totality — the capitalist mode of production — that is in contradiction with itself in the contradiction of its elements, because this contradiction with the other is for every element, to the extent that is its other, a contradiction with itself. The overcoming of the contradiction of exploitation is provided by its non-symmetrical aspect (subsumption of labour under capital). The situation of the proletariat is the self-contradiction of the reproduction of capital. When we say that exploitation is a contradiction for itself we define the situation and revolutionary activity of the proletariat.
Dauvé and Nesic expressly say:
“The proletarian only starts acting as a revolutionary when he goes beyond the negative of his condition and begins to create something positive out of it, i.e. something that subverts the existing order. It’s not for lack of a critique of work that the proletarians have not ‘made the revolution’, but because they stayed within a negative critique of work.”58
We are still waiting for them to define “a positive critique of work.” They avoid doing this because it would require them also to define this anthropological work which capital imperfectly subsumes to itself and which, in relation to the refusal of this subsumption, gives us the revolution. Dauvé and Nesic want the liberation of true labour. Such “living labour with universal grasp” only exists as such, that is, as abstraction, to the extent that capital nourishes it; it is nothing more that its relation to capital.
“Labour power overcoming its condition and rising to its historic task of freeing itself from its chains, and thus freeing humanity.”59 What an unfortunate and truly determinist formula. Doubly unfortunate, for not only does it take up that dominical determinism of the “old days” soapbox discourse, it indicates all the hidden discourse of Dauvé and Nesic — that of the liberation of labour. Labour power “freeing itself from its chains” is a contradiction in terms. It’s true that it has already “overcome its condition”, but this just renders everything more confused. If it “overcomes its condition” it is no longer labour-power, there is nothing left which can be called by that name.
The conclusion of Dauvé and Nesic’s text is given the authoritative stamp of a quote from Babeuf: “we are not of this world.” Sylvain Maréchal took the hospice as the model of communist organisation, Babeuf took the army. To call proletarians at the turn of the 19th century “men from nowhere” is to cast around phrases without consideration. We would recommend, on this subject, the reading of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, of which Gilles Dauvé was one of the translators, to understand all the historical, cultural and geographical rootedness which formed this class and on the basis of which it formed itself. Dauvé and Nesic do not conceive of the overcoming of the capitalist mode of production on the basis of the contemporary situation and practice of the working class in this mode of production, within it, as its contradictory process; they write: “the decline of workerism was accompanied by the loss of a point of view allowing a perspective on the whole of this society, gauging and judging it from the outside in order to conceive and propose another”.60
After regretting not being able to “judge” and “gauge” society “from the outside” in order to propose another, they wait for the proletarians to act as if they were outside: “Revolution will only be possible when the proletarians act as if they were strangers to this world, its outsiders, and will relate to a universal dimension, that of a classless society, of a human community.”61 What does it mean to act as if one was outside? Note the circumlocutions of the formula. Already how to act “outside” is hardly obvious, but to act “as if” one was outside… The outside connects to the universal dimension: we are in total conceptual phantasmagoria. One of the most difficult things to understand is the nature of contradiction: that the capitalist social relation can be on the one hand totally ours and we can only be it, and, on the other, that we could in that very respect abolish it.
The abolition of the proletarian condition is the self-transformation of proletarians into immediately social individuals, it is the struggle against capital which will make us such, because this struggle is a relation that implies us with it. The production of communism is effectuated by a class which finds the content of communism in its own class situation, without having to attach itself to any “universal dimension”. Communisation is carried out in the struggle of the proletariat against capital. Abolishing exchange, the division of labour, the structure of the corporation, the state…, are measures which are necessarily taken up in the course of struggle, with their retreats and their sudden stops they are just as much tactical measures through which communisation is constructed as the strategy of the revolution. It is thus, through the struggle of a class against capital, that the immediately social individual is produced. It is produced by the proletariat in the abolition of capital (the final relation between capital and the proletariat), and not by proletarians who will no longer be completely proletarians acting “as if they were outside”. But then, protest the delicate souls, “we would be forced…”
Proletarian activity does not determine itself because it has no “direct link with capital,” it determines itself because it is its relation to capital and nothing more and this relation is a contradiction. That can only be seen as determinism if one wants to define a subject prior to its relations in which alone it exists, which define it, and in which it acts. If we separate the subject and its action from its “frame” we can only conceive of their relation in the alternative of determinism and freedom.
Why the failure? In a certain way Dauvé and Nesic give an answer: the revolution failed because the proletariat failed to make the revolution. They never get beyond that tautology and they cannot. It is inevitable because to get beyond that tautology would be to determine the historical action of proletarians, it would be to establish a link between the development of capital and proletarian activity. The tautology is structural to their thought. If you mess with the tautology you mess with freedom.
Dauvé and Nesic can only accuse TC of “determinism” by supposing that TC shares their own fixed, normative and invariant conception of the revolution. It is obvious that in such a problematic the revolution cannot “result from a particular stage”, for it is “invariant in its deep content”.
For us, the revolution of which we speak today is, if you will, the product of the current situation; it is not The Revolution rendered at last possible by the current situation. In the problematic of Dauvé and Nesic TC is determinist, what Dauvé and Nesic haven’t noticed is that TC abandoned that problematic thirty years ago. They critique TC as if TC was just giving another response to the same problematic.
After 18 pages intended to show that it never (and could never have) existed, Dauvé and Nesic allow the supposition that the working class was “entangled in its identification with work”.62 We wouldn’t say the class was ever “entangled”, we would rather say strengthened by its identification with work. We don’t share Dauvé and Nesic’s normative view of the revolution. Until a recent period there was no revolution without this “identification with work” (or else there has never been a revolutionary movement). If the proletariat is defined through accumulation and acts accordingly, its failure is not interior to its practice; it lies in its relation to the counter-revolution. This practice is a determinant practice and not a communist practice inherently propelled towards an internal impossibility. This practice is directed at the community of labour, and it has really been rendered impossible in the class struggle through its relation to the counter-revolution.
If we say today that the revolutions were beaten on the basis of what they were, that their intimate relationship to the counter revolution was found within them (as certain left communist tendencies perceived), if we do not replay history supposing that the revolutions could have been anything else, we nonetheless don’t say that they lacked anything, we don’t attribute to them the consciousness which results precisely from their failures and counter-revolutions. The Russian proletarians of 1917, German of 1919, or Spanish of 1936, acted as such, they carried out the revolutionary movement which was theirs in all consciousness and all contradiction. The limits of their movement were imposed on them by the counter-revolution that they had to fight. What we can say now of these movements, we say now, and if we say why they failed we owe it to the combats as they were waged. Our analysis is a result; the result doesn’t pre-exist the thing. Anyone is free to explain what was on the basis of what ought to have been, and to imagine the latter; that isn’t our method.
“What privilege permits the observer in the year 2000 to know that his standpoint is ultimately the right one? Nothing can guarantee that in 2050, after 50 more years of capitalism, a even more broad-ranging overview won’t establish for x + y reasons the ways in which the proletarians of the year 2000 … remained historically constrained by the limits of their times, and thus that communism wasn’t actually in the offing in the year 2000 any more than it was in 1970 or 1919, but that now a new period is ushering itself in, allowing us to genuinely grasp the past from the new, proper viewpoint.”63
The point of view is a good one because, today, it’s the only one we have, because it is ours. We don’t aspire to an eternal grasp of communism because such a thing doesn’t exist. Of course we may be “constrained by our limits”, but for as long as the combat continues these limits are what we are, our force which will perhaps become our undoing. We know that if, in the current cycle, the limit of the class activity of the proletariat is to act as a class, then nothing is determined in advance, and overcoming this contradiction will be arduous. But we also know that for us, now, communism is the abolition of all classes and that it is the overcoming of all previous limits of class struggle.
We don’t believe in the unchanging being of the proletariat or in the invariant need of the human community since time immemorial. We think the situation in which we find ourselves: our cycle of struggle carries such a content and such a structure of the confrontation between capital and the proletariat, and for us it is the communist revolution, because for us it is rigorously impossible to envisage other forms and other contents.