1. Bring out your dead
  2. When Insurrections Die
  3. Normative History and the Communist Essence of the Proletariat
  4. Human, all too human?
  5. Love of Labour? Love of Labour Lost…
  6. Much Ado About Nothing
  7. Afterword

Normative History and the Communist Essence of the Proletariat

by Théorie Communiste

A critique of Gilles Dauvé’s When Insurrections Die. Originally published as ‘Histoire normative et essence communiste du prolétariat’, Théorie Communiste no. 16, 2000

Translated by Endnotes.

In When Insurrections Die we find the normative conception of the history of class struggle in its purity. On the first page Dauvé puts in place the vocabulary of this problematic: a vocabulary of “missed” chances and “failed” materialisations. Throughout the text fascism and Nazism are described as the result of the limits of the class struggles of the preceding period, but these limits are defined in relation to Communism (with a big ‘C’) rather than in relation to the struggles of that period. Meanwhile the history of capital is referred to a contradiction which overreaches it, a general contradiction of history: the separation between man and community, between human activity and society:

“Democracy will never be able to solve the problem of the most separated society in history.”1

But this was never its intention. Only the society in which the relations between people are the strongest and most developed produces the fiction of the isolated individual. The question is never to know how individuals, determined by a mode of production, are linked together by a political form, but why these social bonds take the form of politics. A certain type of individual corresponds to a certain type of community; individuals form communities as limited as themselves. Democracy (the state in general) is the form of this community at the political level; it does not respond to a general separation — such a separation does not exist. To say that democracy responds “badly” to separation is to say that this general separation is the general dynamic of history (an idea broadly developed in La Banquise).

We are told that the workers were defeated by democracy (with the aid of the parties and unions); but the objectives — the content — of these workers’ struggles (in Italy, Spain, Germany) always remains unspoken. We are thus plunged into the problematic of “betrayal” by the parties and unions.2 That the workers obeyed reformist movements — it is precisely this that ought to have been explained — and on the basis of the nature of those struggles themselves, rather than letting the nebulous shadows of manipulation and trickery pass for explanation. “Proletarians trusted the democrats”3, the very same proletariat which fought capital “using its own methods and goals”4; methods and goals which are never defined. Dauvé goes so far as to ask the question, “Who defeated this proletarian energy?”5 but nothing is ever said of the content, the forms and the limits proper to this energy. It is proletarian energy and that is all. For Dauvé the central question was “how to control the working class?”6 but before asking this question we need to ask another one: “What does the working class do?” This always seems self-evident in the text, just a matter of “proletarian energy”. Why then did the “control” succeed in ’21 and in ’43 (in Italy)? These are the questions to which the text only responds anecdotally; or else in the profound manner we’ll see later on: the workers failed and were beaten because they didn’t make the revolution — a collapse into tautology.

We find this same indeterminate “revolutionary energy” in the analysis of the working class defeat and subsequent victory of Nazism in Germany:

“The German defeat of 1918 and the fall of the empire set in motion a proletarian assault [we must be dealing with a manifestation of ‘proletarian energy’] strong enough to shake the foundations of society, but impotent to revolutionize it, thus bringing Social Democracy and the unions to centre stage as the key to political equilibrium”.7

We are not told anything else about this “proletarian assault”. Why is it not powerful enough to revolutionise society? That’s the question, however, and the only one we need answer. Things seem so obvious to the author, it’s enough to say “proletariat” and “revolution”. At one moment he fleetingly gives us an indication: the German radical movement is described as “aspiring to a workers’ world”.8 But this comment of fundamental import isn’t developed; here it serves only as a sort of detail which does not resolve the question of defeat, and it is immediately downplayed by the generality of the “proletarian assault”.

The key to the problematic is given to us in an incidental remark:

“But the conservative revolution also took over old anti-capitalist tendencies (the return to nature, the flight to cities…) that the workers’ parties, even the extremist ones, had misestimated by their refusal to integrate the a-classist and communitarian dimension of the proletariat, and their inability to think of the future as anything but an extension of heavy industry.”9

We’ll leave aside the struggles of the Nazi regime against heavy industry; it’s the “proletarian energy” which interests us. This energy resides in this “a-classist and communitarian dimension”. If this is so, once this dimension is proclaimed, everything else — that is the real history of class struggles — can be nothing more than a succession of forms more or less adequate to it. The general pattern of the argument is then as follows: man and society are separate and this is the foundation of all history; all the historic forms of human society are built on this separation and try to resolve them but only through alienated forms. Capital is the society in which the contradiction is pushed to its limits, but simultaneously (Hegel to the rescue!) it is the society which gives birth to a class with this communal dimension, an a-classist class. As for capital, it is forced to respond to the same question of separation (which, let’s not forget, is just a form of social bond), with the state, democracy, politics. We have arrived at the simple opposition of two answers to the same question. It is no longer proletariat and capital which are the terms of the contradiction within the capitalist mode of production, but the human community carried by the proletariat and politics (the state) which confront each other, the only connection between them being that they are opposing solutions to the trans-historical problem of the separation of man and society, individual and community. We can find this problematic in developed form in La Banquise’s ‘The Story of Our Origins’ (LB no. 2). This whole problematic ignores the basic axiom of materialism: that a certain type of individual corresponds to a certain type of community.

The proletariat does not have an a-classist or communitarian dimension: it has, in its contradiction with capital, the ability to abolish capital and class society and to produce community (the social immediacy of the individual). This is not a dimension that it carries within itself — neither as a nature that comes to it from its situation in the capitalist mode of production, nor as the finally discovered subject of the general tendency of history towards community.

Unable, in such a problematic, to consider class struggle as the real history of its immediate forms and to understand that its particular historical content exhausts the totality of what transpires in the struggle (and not as a historical form of something else), Dauvé never tells us why the revolution failed, or why it is that every time the state, the parties, the unions want to destroy the revolutionary movement, it works. “Counter-revolution inevitably triumphs on the terrain of revolution”10 — exactly, but we never find out why the counter-revolution wins out in relation to the historical characteristics of the revolution. The author describes how it happens, but leaves it at that. Given the general problematic, the only explanation has to be tautological: the revolution failed because it didn’t go further. In saying this we’ve said nothing on the actually existing failure of the actually existing revolution. “In this juncture, democracy and Social Democracy were indispensable to German capitalism for killing off the spirit of revolt in the polling booth, winning a series of reforms from the bosses, and dispersing the revolutionaries.”11 But the relation of this activity of the capitalist class and social democracy to the historical content of the revolution itself, which alone would tell us why “it works”, has not been explained; herein lies the necessary blind spot of this problematic.

The chapter on Spain takes the impasses of this problematic to an extreme. Dauvé describes precisely the counter-revolution (we have no disagreement on this), but he only talks about the revolution on the basis of what it didn’t do, in relation to what it should have done and as a succession of “fatal errors”:

“After defeating the forces of reaction in a large number of cities, the workers had the power. But what were they going to do with it? Should they give it back to the republican state, or should they use it to go further in a communist direction?”12

We know the answer, and Dauvé explains to us in great detail the “fatal error” of the Spanish revolutionaries who failed to take on the legal government, the State. But why did they make this error, was this error not bound up with the very nature of the “proletarian assault”? (It was certainly fatal, but whether we can talk of an error is less sure). These are the real questions which this problematic cannot address. “In May ´37, workers still had the capacity to rise up against the state (this time in its democratic form), but they could no longer push their struggle to the point of an open break”13 — so this capacity did exist in July 1936. For Dauvé the masses are “deceived” by the CNT and the POUM who are afraid of alienating the State:

“Because they accepted the mediation of ‘representative organisations’ and counsels of moderation from the POUM and the CNT, the very same masses who had defeated the fascist military in July 1936 surrendered without a fight to the Republican police in May 1937.”14

If we follow this interpretation, Spanish proletarians are idiots. It is extraordinary to write such expressions as: “the masses placed their trust”, “fatal error”, “the proletarians, convinced that they had effective power”, “because they accepted the mediation…,” without a single moment of doubt, or a question such as: but why does it work? Why did they give their trust? Why did this error happen? Why this conviction? If these questions don’t even momentarily occur, we should nonetheless ask ourselves why not.

The point is that in the text the proletariat is by nature revolutionary, and, even better, communist. It is a given that history is the history of the separation of man and society; as for proletarians, they are “commodified beings who no longer can and no longer want to exist as commodities, and whose revolt explodes capitalist logic”. Proletarians are, in themselves, contradictory beings, and as such they carry the community — communism — within themselves. It follows that when they fail to make the revolution, it’s that they are wrong, or have been deceived. Thus it is that which failed to happen which becomes the explanation for what actually happened.

The formula “commodified beings, etc.” leaves shrouded in darkness theoretical questions which could not be more arduous or decisive. The proletarians are here the crux of an internal contradiction, one of whose terms is left unsaid and is taken as given: on the one hand they are commodities, but in the name of what, on the other, do they no longer want to be this? Elementary: they are men. The social definition of the proletariat in a specific mode of production gives way to a hybrid definition: commodity and man. But who then is this man who is not the ensemble of his social relations through which he is merely a commodity?

From the moment that the revolutionary nature of the proletariat is constructed as this contradictory hybridisation of man and commodity, the history of the class struggle — and more precisely of revolution and communism — disappears. Communism is inscribed once and for all in the nature of the proletariat. That the proletariat can’t and doesn’t want to remain what it is, is not a contradiction internal to its nature, intrinsic to its being, but rather the actuality of its contradictory relation to capital in a historically specific mode of production. It is the relation to capital of that particular commodity which is labour power, as a relation of exploitation, which is the revolutionary relation. Posed in this way, it is necessarily a history: that of this contradiction. The class struggle in Barcelona in May ’37 was not the movement of communism in general (even in these particular conditions) which fell short for reasons which can never be given; it was rather the revolution as it really existed, that is to say, as affirmation of the proletariat drawing its force and the content of its autonomy from its very condition inside the capitalist mode of production. “Errors” now appear as what they are, inherent limits, to the extent that the revolution implies its own counter-revolution. The affirmation of the autonomy of the proletariat implies the affirmation of what it is in capital; that is where it finds its power and the raison d´être for its action, at the same time as the essential link between this action and the counter-revolution is produced.

The affirmation of an “a-classist”, “communitarian” dimension of the proletariat merely derives from a poor understanding of an era of the class struggle (up to the 1840s) and not from the revolutionary nature of the proletariat. However, this allows the proletariat to be constructed as figure of humanity, as representation of a pre-existing contradiction. Communism is presupposed as tension, as tendency, which opposes itself to capital from the outset of the capitalist mode of production and aims to explode it. This is different from affirming that communism is the movement which abolishes existing conditions, that is to say the movement of the internal contradiction of these conditions. Moreover, if the proletariat is invested with this dimension, the historical process of the class struggle is no longer really necessary in relation to the revolution: it is merely a process of realisation. This causes the slippage in the analysis whereby the contradiction between communism and capital comes to replace the contradiction between the proletariat and capital.

If we come back to the course of the Spanish civil war as described in the text, what is striking is the use of the subjunctive and the conditional: “Taking the revolution beyond areas under republican control, however, would have meant completing the revolution in the republican areas as well”.15 What failed to happen is always the explanation for what actually happened: “but even Durruti did not seem to realize that the state was everywhere still intact.” Everything happens as if there were a huge thermometer with a scale up to Communist Revolution (human community): you stick it into a sensitive point of events and see how far the mercury rises, then you explain that the mercury only rose that far because it failed to rise any further.

However “Durruti and his comrades embodied an energy which had not waited for 1936 to storm the existing world”.16 “Proletarian energy” plays a starring role in this vision of history: it is what makes the mercury rise in the thermometer. It is, like in the old physics, one of those ineffable forces destined to wrap up all tautologies. We note in passing that “energy” is embodied, just like “momentum”.17 Ultimately, without explaining why the Spanish revolution fails to go further and what its essential relation to the counter-revolution is, Dauvé accumulates all the perfectly pertinent “hows”, but without ever providing us with the beginnings of an explanation; unless it is in the conditional, with the condition being what should have been done:

“the announcement of immediate and unconditional independence for Spanish Morocco would, at minimum, have stirred up trouble among the shock troops of reaction.”18
“In order to be consolidated and extended, the transformations without which revolution becomes an empty word had to pose themselves as antagonistic to a state clearly designed as the adversary. The trouble was, after July 1936, dual power existed in appearance only. Not only did the instruments of proletarian power which emerged from the insurrection, and those which subsequently oversaw the socialisations, tolerate the state, but they accorded the state a primacy in the anti-Franco struggle, as if it were tactically necessary to pass through the state in order to defeat Franco.”19
“Communist measures could have undermined the social bases of the two states (republican and nationalist), if only by solving the agrarian question: in the 1930’s, more than half of the population went hungry. A subversive force erupted, bringing to the fore the most oppressed strata, those farthest from ‘political life’ (e.g. women), but it could not go all the way and eradicate the system root and branch.”20

Why? To answer that question the revolution must be defined other than as “revolutionary élan”, “communist potential” or “aborted revolution”.21 The contradiction between the proletariat and capital must be considered as a relation of reciprocal implication, and revolution and communism as historical products — not as the result of the nature of the revolutionary class defined as such once and for all.

For Dauvé the German revolution, like the Russian and Spanish ones, testifies to “a communist movement remaking all of society”.22 But it is precisely the nature of this communist movement, at this particular juncture in the history of the contradiction between the proletariat and capital, that must be defined if we want to understand its limits and its relation to the counter-revolution without reducing it to what it should have done and what it wasn’t. Nevertheless the author furnishes us with an explanation of the limits of the revolution, albeit without seeming to attribute much importance to it:

“The Spanish Civil War proved both the revolutionary vigour of communitarian bonds and forms which have been penetrated by capital but which are not yet daily reproduced by capital, and also their impotence, taken by themselves, in bringing off a revolution. The absence of an assault against the state condemned the establishment of different relationships to a fragmentary self-management preserving the content and often the forms of capitalism, notably money and the division of activities by individual enterprises.”23

And what if it was precisely these bonds and these forms which prevented the “assault”? And what if this were just a particular form of the affirmation of the proletariat? Dauvé does not ask himself this type of question, because for him the particular conditions are always merely the conditions in relation to what the revolution must do, and not the very form of the revolution at a given moment. In this brief but very interesting passage he does not escape a problematic of objective conditions / revolutionary nature. These particular conditions which he calls to our attention should have been those which nonetheless should have produced an assault against the state. In consequence this explanation of the limits is given but doesn’t intervene in the general reasoning. If it had intervened, Dauvé would have been forced to historically specify the “revolutionary vigour”, the “revolutionary élan”, and could no longer have spoken of “aborted revolution” or “communist potentialities”. He would no longer have been able to explain what had happened by what hadn’t, and all the “would-have-beens” would have had no sense. As it is he is content to juxtapose an ahistorical vision of the revolution and of communism with the conditions which will give it form, which will model it. The history of class struggle is here always double: on the one hand the communist principle, the élan or revolutionary energy which animates the proletariat, a transcendent history, and on the other, the limited manifestation of this energy, an anecdotal history. Between these two aspects there exists a hierarchy. Transcendent history is “real” history, and real history with all its limits is only the accidental form of the former, so much so that the former is constantly the judgment of the latter.

One can hardly question Dauvé’s remark on the condition of social relations in 1930’s Spain, but either it was possible to do what he says it would have been necessary to do, and thus the conditions could have been overcome, or it was not possible and in that case the conditionals of Dauvé lose all rational signification. Such a situation would have been overcome if the revolutionary élan was that which he presupposes in his analysis. But if it was a matter of a programmatic struggle, such a situation (communal bonds) is a material that it reworks according to its own nature.

One could consider that the whole of this historical text is a work of reflection on what the revolution must and can be today. But the problem with Dauvé is that he presents this in an eternal, atemporal, fashion; so much so that if we finish more knowledgeable we have nonetheless made no advance on the essential question: question: why could the revolution be today what it wasn’t in the past?

We should make it clear: we are absolutely in agreement with the sequence of facts that Dauvé presents, as much for Germany as for Spain (with some reservations in regard to Russia). His conception of the communist revolution is entirely our own as far as its content and communist measures are concerned, its comprehension as communisation and not as prior to this communisation. Where we differ profoundly is on the comprehension of the course of class struggle as the juxtaposition of a given, known, communist principle within the being of the proletariat, and a history which contents itself with expressing this principle in a partial, confused or aborted fashion. Its not a question of the method of historical analysis; this isn’t a quarrel between philosophers of history. As always, what is at stake is the comprehension of the current period. Dauvé’s method renders impossible the comprehension of the overcoming of programmatism, of the revolution as affirmation of the proletariat.24 The communist revolution as we can currently conceive it, as it presents itself in this cycle of struggle, is for him already there (limited, aborted, with errors and illusions, etc.) in the Russian, German and Spanish revolutions. Thus even when we say that we are in agreement with the conception of the revolution that he presents at the end of his brochure, this is because he does not see that this revolution is not — is no longer — that of Russia etc. They were revolutions of the cycle of struggle in which the proletariat was affirmed; this is no longer the case today. The confusion is not without consequences for any theory based on the current situation of the relation between the proletariat and capital, on the comprehension of current struggles and on the revolution as produced overcoming of this cycle of struggle. That is to say, on the way one takes these struggles as really productive of their overcoming (practically and theoretically) and not as to be judged in relation to this overcoming already posed as a norm. The history of class struggle is production and not realisation.

  1. Gilles Dauvé, When Insurrections Die, p. 27 (all page references are to the text in this volume unless otherwise noted)
  2. p. 29
  3. p. 31
  4. p. 28
  5. p. 32
  6. p. 34
  7. p. 38
  8. p. 36. Our emphasis
  9. p. 36
  10. p. 36
  11. p. 38. Translator’s note (TN): In the French version of the text to which Théorie Communiste refer, democracy and Social Democracy were also indispensable for containing/integrating (encadrer) workers. This phrase is omitted from the English version.
  12. p. 34
  13. p. 50
  14. p. 51
  15. p. 53
  16. p. 55
  17. TN: “élan” — a play on Dauvé’s “revolutionary élan” (pp. 57, 67) which in other texts by Dauvé is translated as “revolutionary wave” “…surge” or “…momentum”. Here it corresponds to one of the ineffable forces of a defunct physics.
  18. p. 56
  19. p. 59
  20. p. 68
  21. pp. 57, 66, 59 respectively
  22. p. 67
  23. p. 67
  24. For an explanation of TC’s concept of “programmatism” see below pp. 155-161 and Afterword p. 215.