The first issue of SIC lays out the main historical claim of the communisation current. “In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a whole historical period entered into crisis and came to an end — the period in which the revolution was conceived ... as the affirmation of the proletariat, its elevation to the position of ruling class, the liberation of labour, and the institution of a period of transition.”1 This claim leaves unanswered what would seem to be an essential question: what was it that this “period of transition”, for which revolutionaries fought, was a transition to?
After all, the socialists and communists of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries did not take as their final goal to hoist the proletariat into the position of a new ruling class. Their final goal was to abolish all classes, including the proletariat. This aim was stated in the Erfurt Programme of 1891, which became the model for many revolutionaries, across the world: “the German Social Democratic Party … does not fight for new class privileges and class rights, but for the abolition of class rule and of classes themselves.”2 Towards that end, the SPD fought against “not only the exploitation and oppression of wage earners” but also against “every manner of exploitation and oppression, whether directed against a class, party, sex, or race”.3 To focus on the transition period only — the so-called dictatorship of the proletariat — is to miss its intimate connection with this final goal — the abolition of class society.
Some might respond that, when the SPD spoke of the abolition of classes, they meant something very different than we do. What did the SPD mean by the abolition of “classes themselves?” In his commentary on the Erfurt Programme, published as The Class Struggle in 1892, Karl Kautsky provides the following gloss: he says, “it is not the freedom of labour” for which the socialists are fighting, but rather the “freedom from labour”.4 They are fighting to bring “to mankind freedom of life, freedom for artistic and intellectual activity”.5 Kautsky did not see socialist parties as fighting to preserve or extend an already grey world, a world of choking smog, a world of mental and physical exhaustion brought on by years of work.
On the contrary, the goal of socialism was to reduce the role of work in everyone’s lives, to create time for other pursuits. This goal was already given in the major workers’ struggle of Kautsky’s time, the campaign for the eight-hour day: “the struggle of the proletariat for shorter hours is not aimed at economic advantages … the struggle for shorter hours is a struggle for life.”6 In Kautsky’s estimation, only socialism could realise this goal. The party programme claimed that only socialism could transform “the constantly growing productivity of social labour … from a source of misery and oppression into a source of the greatest welfare and universal harmonious perfection.”7 Productivity growth was widely seen as the source of present-day misery, but also of a potential liberation, which could not but be the liberation of humanity.
Kautsky’s own vision of productivity-based liberation was of a world of art and philosophy not unlike ancient Athens. Whereas Athenian culture was based on the slavery of men, socialism would be based on the work of machines: “What slaves were to the ancient Athenians, machinery will be to modern man.”8 Socialism would thus realise the dream of Aristotle, who imagined that “if every instrument could accomplish its own work, obeying or anticipating the will of others, like the statues of Daedalus, or the tripods of Hephaestus” there would no longer be any need for the debasement of the many to create free time for the few.9
So, was Kautsky the original theorist of anti-work? How did this liberatory perspective turn into its opposite in the twentieth century? That is to say, how did the liberation from labour become a liberation of labour? What we need to recover here is the primary contradiction of the labour movement. The socialists and communists of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries wanted to abolish the working class and with it class society. However, they believed this abolition could be achieved only through the universalisation of the proletarian condition. To end a world of hard labour, most of humanity had to be transformed into labourers: they had to be set to work according to the latest techniques and technologies of production.
Today, most of humanity has been proletarianised. Across the globe, huge masses of people must sell their labour in order to buy what they need to survive. That is true in spite of the fact that, for many, proletarianisation has taken place without an accompanying integration into modern capitalist enterprises: a large portion of the world’s labour force consists of workers without (regular) access to work. It is obvious that this situation has not brought us any closer to being liberated from a world of work. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how anyone might have thought otherwise, in the past: how could you seek to end domination by spreading one of its forms to the ends of the earth? Yet this idea animated an era of revolutionary energies: to usher in a world of workers became the order of the day.
That explains why, almost half a century after the publication of the Erfurt Programme, Leon Trotsky could look back on his interventions in Russian history as having pushed towards the realisation of the socialist project, in spite of the Stalinist nightmare that the USSR became. He thought he had contributed to this project, not because the Bolsheviks had reduced the amount of work the Russian people performed, but rather, because they had increased it: “socialism has demonstrated its right to victory, not on the pages of Das Kapital, but in an industrial arena comprising a sixth part of the Earth’s surface — not in the language of dialectics, but in the language of steel, cement, and electricity.”10 It was a massive increase in production, not a reduction in labour hours, that was the measure of socialism’s success.
Although he did not himself oversee it, it was in this vein that Trotsky praised the war against the Russian peasants — undertaken in the course of the collectivisation drives of the early 1930s — as a “supplementary revolution” to that of 1917.11 This supplementary revolution had been demanded since “the kulak did not wish to ‘grow’ evolutionarily into socialism” (by this Trotsky meant that the peasants had refused voluntary proletarianisation, and thus subjection to the will of the central planner and local bureaucrat).12 Trotsky saw a fuller proletarianisation as a necessary step before any reduction in labour time was possible.
Indeed, he believed that the threshold at which work could be reduced was still far in the future, even in advanced capitalist countries: “A socialist state, even in America … could not immediately provide everyone with as much as he needs, and would therefore be compelled to spur everyone to produce as much as possible. The duty of the stimulator in these circumstances naturally falls to the state, which in its turn cannot but resort … to the method of labour payment worked out by capitalism.”13 Not only a world of work but also a system of wage payments would have to be retained for the time being!14 We take Trotsky, here, as one key example (he is not necessarily representative of the range of socialist perspectives).
The point is that, in any case, the extension to the world of the English factory system (later, the American one displaced the English) — with its frightful pace, its high rate of industrial accidents, its periodic speed-ups, and its all-round subjugation of human beings to the needs of the machine — this was the dream of many revolutionaries.15 On that basis, it is easy to see why socialism, in its seemingly interminable, intermediate stage of development, came to seem to many people to be not so different from capitalism. Indeed, many socialists saw themselves as doing the work that capital had not done or had refused to do. The incompletion of capitalist development presented itself as a communist problem.
In the vision of the future laid out in the Communist Manifesto, the development of the productive forces was supposed to bring about heaven on earth. As we have seen, the socialists looked forward to a time, not far in the future, when machines — moving by themselves and producing a cornucopia of goods according to designs of scientists — were going to bring about an end of suffering, and so also of the conflict born of that suffering, which made man into a wolf for other men. The fuller development of the productive forces was not going to end suffering immediately: all this productive power would as yet remain concentrated in the hands of capitalists, who used it for their own ends (hence the impoverishment of the masses in a world of plenty). Nevertheless, in stoking development, what these capitalists were producing “above all” was their “own grave-diggers”.16
Here we come to the as yet unmentioned key to the labourist vision of the future. The fuller development of the productive forces was expected to propel the workers into the leading role. The development of the productive forces was simultaneously “the multiplication of the proletariat”, its becoming the majority of bourgeois society.17 Crucially, proletarians were not only becoming the majority; they were also made over into a compact mass: the Gesamtarbeiter, or collective worker. The factory system was pregnant with this collective worker, which was born of bourgeois society in such a way that it would destroy that society.
Antonio Gramsci captured this vision best when, in his pre-prison years, he described the collective worker in terms of workers’ growing “consciousness of being an organic whole, a homogeneous and compact system which, working usefully and disinterestedly producing social wealth, arms its sovereignty and actuates its power and freedom to create history.”18 Of course, in order to become conscious of themselves as an “organic whole”, workers would have to give up various particularising identities related to skill, ethnicity, gender, etc. Coaxing them to do so turned out to be more difficult than socialists supposed.
Yet in spite of such difficulties, workers were confident that history was moving in their favour. Theirs was no free-floating vision. It was grounded in an experience of history’s unfolding. The working class could feel history unfolding, in stages: the old world begets capitalism, and capitalism begets socialism. The transition through these stages could be read off the landscape, as the countryside gave way to cities. The same disjunction was reflected in the surface of British steel: one could compare its straightness to one’s own crooked instruments. The factories of England were supposedly the most advanced point in history. They had traveled the furthest along a linear trajectory. All of England was being made over by the factories; all of Europe was becoming England; and all of the world was becoming Europe.
This allegorical reading of the English factory system grounded a fervently held belief that the future belonged to the working class: “The proletariat was destined — one only had to look at industrial Britain and the record of national censuses over the years — to become the great majority of the people”.19 It was inevitable. By contrast, every other social stratum was doomed to disappear: peasants, artisans, small shopkeepers, etc. On that basis, many socialists felt no need, at least at first, to take a stand against colonialism, or against the genocide of faraway populations, in settler-colonial countries, to make space for Europeans. History was going to stamp these peoples under its boots and march on.
Yet history marched at a halting pace. The Marxist understanding of history turned out to be only partially correct. The entire world was not made over in the image of the English factory. Industrialisation took place in some regions; however, it largely failed to give birth to the collective worker as a compact mass. We have provided a historical account of these problems, above. Here, we focus on internal debates among socialists and communists. At issue was the question: would capital eventually give rise to a working class that was large and unified enough to take over and then to destroy bourgeois society — and how quickly?
Kautsky made the clinging-on of the moribund classes into a centerpiece of his commentary on the Erfurt Programme. He admitted that there was still a large remainder of peasants, artisans, small shopkeepers in Europe (to say nothing of the world as a whole, where these classes were preponderant). Kautsky explained this reality as follows: in capitalist society, “private property in the means of production fetters the small producers to their undeveloped occupations long after these have ceased to afford them a competence, and even when they might improve their condition by becoming wage workers outright.”20 In essence, smallholders refused to become wage-workers because to do so would require that they subject themselves to the insecurities of the market and the despotism of the factory director. In the face of these dire prospects, smallholders did whatever they could to retain their autonomy.
Of course, Kautsky still thought these smallholders were doomed. But he now supposed that capitalism would snuff them out much more slowly than Marx and Engels had expected. Socialism, once achieved, would have to complete the process of proletarianisation. In socialism, to be a proletarian would no longer mean a life of insecurity and subordination. For that reason, socialism would be able to coax the remaining smallholders into the factory: they would willingly give up their small pieces of property to join the proletariat, thereby reducing economic irrationality and bringing us ever closer to communism. Kautsky thus conceived the leveling down of the new world as a precondition for absorbing the remainder of the old world.
In his revisionist critique, Eduard Bernstein argued that smallholders would never get the chance to partake in these sorts of socialist schemes. Bernstein, too, began from the argument that, in fact, “the industrial workers are everywhere the minority of the population.”21 At the turn of the century — and even in Germany, one of the leading industrial powers — the remainder of peasants, artisans, and shopkeepers was very large. Industrial wage-earners, “including industrial home-workers”, represented merely “7,000,000 out of 19,000,000 people earning incomes”, or in other words, about 37 percent of the workforce.22 Below the 50-percent hurdle, it was flatly impossible for the class to obtain a majority in parliament.
Even more problematic, for Bernstein, was the fact that these “modern wage-earners are not a homogeneous mass, devoid in an equal degree of property, family, etc., as the Communist Manifesto foresees.”23 That is to say, the factory system was not giving birth to the collective worker as a compact mass. Between workers of different situations and skills, it might be possible to imagine a “lively, mutual sympathy;” however, “there is a great difference between … social political sympathy and economic solidarity.”24 Moreover, the factory system was tending to accentuate divisions between workers, not reduce them.
Bernstein argued that socialists would have a hard time maintaining equality among workers, even if they managed the factories themselves. For as soon as a factory “has attained a certain size — which may be relatively very modest — equality breaks down because differentiation of functions is necessary and with it subordination. If equality is given up, the corner-stone of the building is removed, and the other stones follow in the course of time. Decay and conversion into ordinary business concerns step in.”25 Bernstein’s solution to these embarrassments was to to give up on the goal of a revolutionary transition to socialism altogether and to try to find a more inclusive, liberal-democratic way forward.
For the mainstream of the socialist movement, it was not yet time to give up on the goal. One part of the movement drew the conclusion that it was now necessary to bide one’s time: they should allow capitalism to mature, and await the further integration of the population into the modern industrial workforce; meanwhile, they should continue to organise that workforce into a conscious, coherent mass through the mediations of the trade unions and the social democratic parties. By contrast, for the romantic revolutionaries — including Trotsky — there was no time to wait. History had stalled, half-complete. The revolutionary communist international would thus constitute itself in the decision to de-arrest the dialectic of history. What was supposed to be a historical inevitability would now become an act of will. Everyone is being proletarianised, and so, to achieve communism, we must proletarianise everyone!
Regardless of which faction they joined, socialists shared this overall perspective. As the catastrophes of history piled ever higher, they put their faith in the full development of the productive forces. Movement strategists saw that development, and the class power it would bring, as the only way to break out of the penultimate stage of history and into the final one.
Before we go any further, it is important to recognise that what we have called the primary contradiction of the labour movement — that the generalisation of one form of domination was seen as the key to overcoming all domination — eventually resolved itself in a “collapsed” perspective, which fused the two sides of the contradiction together. Thus, the universalisation of the proletarian condition was identified directly with the abolition of class rule, rather than as a precondition of the abolition of all classes. In fact, this collapsed perspective — we might call it “Lasallian”— was hegemonic before the Marxist vision displaced it, and it also became popular once again in the middle of the twentieth century. Lasallianism had its root in the defensive struggles of artisanal workers against capitalist industrialisation.
For artisans, capital appeared as an external parasite: artisans did the same amount of work as before, but instead of receiving all of the income from the sale of the products of their labour, they received back only a portion of those revenues as wages. Hence the nearly universal slogan among struggling craft workers was that labour was entitled to its “full product”. Artisans’ struggles were not only about resisting “the wages system”. Craft workers also fought battles over shopfloor control. They resisted employers’ efforts to rationalise the labour process, to increase the division of labour and to introduce labour saving technical change.26
Although the artisans were eventually defeated (in fact, the battle dragged on for a long time), their vision of skilled workers’ self-management was adapted for an industrial era. What “semi-skilled” workers lost in terms of skill and control, they gained in terms of numbers: they formed — to a greater extent than any other set of workers — a compact mass in large-scale workplaces, which could be seized as strongholds. Workers dreamed that, once they were in control, they would be able to run the now-established factory system in the interest of the workforce, without the capitalists. In terms of both wages and shopfloor control, class conflict was perceived more or less as a zero-sum game: it was class against class, with the possibility that the exploited class might take the “full product”, eliminating the capitalist.27
This Lasallian perspective was the one that Marxism defeated, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century: a Marxist story about dynamic productivity growth displaced the Lasallian one about a zero-sum contest between classes. However, such a static perspective was later revived in the early twentieth century, above all in the radical current of the labour movement called anarcho-syndicalism (which is not to suggest that syndicalists were pro-market, like Lasalle, just that they came to see communism as a sort of workers’ paradise).
This sort of perspective also became the de facto position of the socialists and communists, if not their de jure position, throughout the first half of the twentieth century, and into the mid 1960s, when the goal of wholly or nearly automated production — having already receded towards the horizon — fell below that horizon and disappeared completely from view.
The dynamic given by growing productivity, and the tendency towards automation (which was so central to Marx and the socialists of the late nineteenth century) thus fell out of the story, once again. Only the struggle to end capitalist exploitation remained. As Rudolf Rocker explained, “For the Anarcho-Syndicalists, the trade union is by no means a mere transitory phenomenon bound up with the duration of capitalist society; it is the germ of the Socialist economy of the future, the elementary school of Socialism in general.”28 Here, it really was explicit that the working class was to be the ruler of society. Taking over society was to inaugurate a transition, not to a world without work, but rather, to a workers’ world.
A History of Separation has attempted to explain why the primary contradiction of the labour movement resolved itself into this collapsed perspective. The key was that, for a long time, the development of the productive forces really did tend to increase the size of the industrial workforce. Like Marx, Kautsky and the other socialists expected a second phase of industrial development to arrive and sooner rather than later: rising productivity was supposed to bring about a reduction in the demand for labour and hence the ejection of the workers from the space of the factory, leading to widespread unemployment. In fact, this second phase did not arrive until the 1970s.29 When it finally did, it spelled doom for the labour movement.
Rummaging around in our theoretical toolbox, we might be inclined to retrieve the following critical perspective. The socialists lacked a proper theory of value, as well as of the possibility and the inner tendency of its self-abolition.30 According to this critique, the labour movement failed to conceive of a real break with the value-form. It therefore ended up reinforcing the categories of the capitalist mode of production, not least the category of productive labour. Hence, finally, the labour movement “affirmed the proletariat”, instead of abolishing it.
The mistake of the theorists of the labour movement was as follows. They often described capitalist social relations in terms of a foundational fracturing: the separation of peasants from the land generated a propertyless proletariat. However, the class relation is not only established through a foundational fracturing; it also confirms that fracturing in every moment. Capitalism realises the fracturing of social existence as the “unity-in-separation” of market society, an interdependence of everyone on everyone else, which nevertheless reduces individuals to isolated atoms, facing off against one another in market competition.31 This is especially true for proletarians, whose very survival depends on competing with other proletarians, and who therefore face the most barriers to collective organisation (as we have argued elsewhere, it is not the eventual decline of working class identity, but rather its emergence despite these barriers, which needs to be explained).
The cleaving off of human beings from their capacities — the expropriation of “workers” set against the “means of production”— is simultaneously the social separation of individuals from one another, of the sphere of production from that of reproduction. It is also the separation of the economy from politics. All that is given in the phenomenon of market dependence and market exchange: we are cut off from nature and from other people, in such a way that we relate to both almost exclusively through the mediation of markets, overseen by states. We remain dependent on one another, but in a way that keeps us separate from one another. This practical unity-in-separation instantiates itself in a set of ideas, which come to seem self-evident: “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay”; “he who does not work shall not eat”.
All of these separations, together, would have to be overcome in order to achieve communism, that is, a world in which the connection between how much one “works” and how much one “eats” has been definitively broken. For the labour movement, only the initial separation of workers from means of production came clearly into view as something to be overcome: this they hoped to achieve by abolishing private property in the means of production, and replacing private exchange with centralised planning of production and distribution.32 By contrast, the commodity — as “use-value” but not as “exchange-value”— appeared to be neutral and transhistorical; it was the same in every era. And so, they thought, the more the better: if more wheat will feed everyone, then why not more of everything else? That can only be a good thing.33 Commodities, heaped together in great piles (an “immense collection of commodities”), were seen as the overcoming of alienation, not its realisation. More importantly, the factory system — as “labour process”, but not as “valorisation process” — was to survive the end of the capitalist mode of production. It was understood as the foundation of socialism, not as the material embodiment of abstract domination.
To call these notions “productivist” or “progressivist” is to mark out the obviousness of our disconnection from a former era. But neither of these epithets should be taken to mean that, today, we think the dream of freeing human beings from existential insecurity is not a beautiful dream. Nor would we question the human needs, however apparently frivolous, which such production was imagined to satisfy (the critique of consumerism is itself an outgrowth of productivism). It is simply to point out that the identification between the realisation of this dream — that “no-one shall go hungry any more”34 — and the extension of capitalist social relations, or the massive expansion of the factory system, is not only false; due to global warming, it now has the potential to bring extreme harm to humanity as a whole.
As few were able to see in advance, the machinery and products of the capitalist production process were not neutral; they reproduced all the separations of capitalist society.35 It is perhaps surprising that contributions towards a critique of the neutrality of the factory system did not emerge within the workers’ movement until the 1950s (in the writings of Phil Singer and Grace Lee Boggs, as well as Raniero Panzieri and Cornelius Castoriadis).36
Among the few who did see this side of things, in an earlier moment, was Marx himself. Quoting Fourier, he equated the factories to “mitigated jails”.37 For the factory is the very embodiment of capitalist domination, of the separation of human beings from their capacities and from one another. It is the perfect realisation of the topsy-turvy world of capital in which man is dominated by the products of his own labour. Marx failed to finish Capital, his masterwork on these phenomena of alienation and embodied domination (or real subsumption). However, based on the volume he did finish, it is hard to see how the factory could be thought to have a liberatory content. In her critique of Bernstein, Rosa Luxemburg conceded this point: “It is one of the peculiarities of the capitalist order that within it all the elements of the future society first assume, in their development, a form not approaching socialism, but, on the contrary, a form moving more and more away from socialism.”38
That the factory was part and parcel of the unity-in-separation of capitalist society made it difficult for the collective worker to struggle its way into existence. In spite of rhetorical statements to the contrary, it turned out that the “actual unity” of factory workers — as opposed to their unity-in-separation — could be achieved only through the mediations of the trade unions and the parties, as well as through their myriad cultural organisations (we will come to the problems associated with unifying through those mediations, as opposed to directly on the factory floor, a little later). We can go beyond this critique.
The theorists of the labour movement expected that the unity of workers within the four walls of the factory would cut against the tendency of capitalist society to atomise workers and to oppose them to one another outside the factory (in labour-market competition and in the isolation of household reproduction). Yet this strategy seems likely to have been effective only in the early phases of industrialisation, that is, during the phases of what Marx, in Capital, called “cooperation” and “manufacture”.39
During these phases, capitalists took workers from many small shops and collected them together in gigantic combines, where they were able to see and experience themselves all working in concert, producing all the materials of a new world. Thus, it was in these early phases that workers appeared to be the ultimate source of material wealth (as we showed, above, remnants of these phases tended to last a very long time, much longer than Marx expected). Bernstein dismissively pointed out that it was precisely “cooperative” work that people usually thought of when they imagined the collective worker’s self-actualisation: “What one usually understands by associated labour is only a mistaken rendering of the very simple forms of cooperative work as they are practiced by groups, gangs, etc., of undifferentiated workers.”40
With the advent and extension of “large-scale industry”, this sort of imagining lives on only as nostalgia.41 Machines, designed according to the latest scientific knowledge, become ever more central to the production process. The very centre of society shifts: science and, perhaps more than that engineering, replaces labour at the heart of the production process, as the key source of material wealth. Indeed, here is the fundamental, self-undermining tendency of the capitalist mode of production: social life continues to be founded on the exchange of labours; yet with the extension and development of the fixed capital base, labour is no longer the key to production. Direct human labour plays an increasingly subsidiary role in production, even though the exchange of equivalents continues to be measured in terms of labour time.
The development of large-scale industry expresses itself, finally, in the extrusion of workers from the factory — deindustrialisation. Beyond the factory gates, workers find themselves wandering in an immense infrastructure, that of modern life, which reflects back to them not their growing power, but rather, their impotence. They see not a world of their making, but rather a runaway world, a world beyond their control, perhaps beyond anyone’s control.
Insofar as they put their faith in the development of the productive forces (insofar as they themselves contributed to that development), industrial workers actually undermined the basis of their power. The fuller development of the productive forces did eventually lead to everything Marx imagined: worsening crises, the expansion of surplus populations, and the immiseration of vast numbers of people in a world of plenty. But at the same time, that development made it impossible for workers to experience themselves as an aliquot part of the collective industrial worker, and hence as the savior-destroyer of society. In short, atomisation won out over collectivisation (and did so in the USSR as much as in the US).42
In the above sections, we have noted a gap between Marx’s late critique of political economy and the theories of the labour movement, towards which Marx otherwise expressed an infinite fidelity. Some have described this gap in terms of an “exoteric” and an “esoteric” teaching. Evidence for their perspective can be found in Marx’s critique of the Gotha Programme, an 1875 pre-cursor to the Erfurt Programme of the 1890s, quoted above. The first line of the Gotha Programme affirmed that “labour is the source of all wealth and all culture”, to which Marx replies, no! “Labour is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labour.”43 It is only within a value-producing society that labour becomes the centre of social activity, and nature is pushed into the background as something to be used, but not really valued in itself. Marx is confident that the further development of capitalist economies will render this Lasallian perspective moot.
But do Marx’s later writings really present us with an alternative to the path taken by the labour movement? In the Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx goes on to lay out his vision of the stages by which capitalism will actually be overcome. In the “first phase of communist society”, he explains, the same principle will apply as in bourgeois society, except that “content and form are changed, because under the altered circumstances no one can give anything except his labour, and because, on the other hand, nothing can pass to the ownership of individuals, except individual means of consumption.”44 Marx here expresses the same sort of contradictory position that Kautsky and Trotsky expressed in their writings: to achieve the abolition of the proletariat, it is first necessary that each individual be reduced to a proletarian. The universalisation of this form of domination is the precursor to the end of domination.
For Marx, it is only in the higher stage that domination is actually overcome. This overcoming is, once again, apparently possible only on the basis of a fuller development of the forces of production: “after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”45 Marx’s statement is, to be sure, a beautiful one, laden with mysteries worthy of further consideration. For our purposes, it is pertinent simply to note that, even according to Marx, it is not until we achieve a state of abundance that we can hope to break the link, inaugurated by capitalism, between the amount of work one does for society and what one receives back from it.46
Yet very late in his life, Marx called this whole stagist perspective into question. Indeed, he came to believe that the theory of the succession of modes of production, which he had laid out in the Communist Manifesto, as well as his vision of the stepwise transition to communism, was incorrect. Instead of finishing Capital, Marx became increasingly obsessed with non-capitalist communities, among them the Russian peasant commune, the Mir.47 Marx’s insight was that, while there were classes in the Russian countryside, the domination of one class over another was not achieved on the basis of “private property”; on the contrary, domination was imposed externally on a community that retained “common property” in the land.48 Within the Mir, relations were not mediated by markets, but by communal decisions made in accord and in conflict with local customs. That was of course true outside of Russia, as well, in the vast global countryside beyond the European continent.
On the basis of these investigations, Marx upended the stage-theory of history. Maybe universal proletarianisation was unnecessary. In areas where proletarianisation was not yet achieved, it might be possible to move directly from the rural commune to full communism, without an intermediate stage. In a draft letter to Vera Zasulich, Marx suggested as much: the rural commune “may become a direct starting-point of the economic system towards which modern society is tending; it may open up a new chapter that does not begin with its own suicide; it may reap the fruits with which capitalist production has enriched humanity, without passing through the capitalist regime”.49 It is important to note that Marx is not looking backwards here, or imagining some alternate reality in which capitalism had never arisen; the point is that communes could take on capitalist innovations, without proletarianising.
The same idea was expressed publicly in the corrective preface to the Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto, published in 1882, that is, just one year before Marx died. With Engels, he wrote: “If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development.”50 The hopeful note Marx sounded, here, on the role that the peasant communes might play in the coming Russian revolution was echoed — at least initially — in the spontaneous activity of the peasants themselves, in the course of the revolutionary era that opened in 1917.
According to Jacques Camatte, in his 1972 text, “Community and Communism in Russia”, the communes, which had undergone a process of dissolution in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were actually revived in the course of the Russian Revolution.51 Camatte suggests — woefully considering what was about to happen — that “this could have been the beginning of the reformation of the communities on a higher level, on the condition that the peasants were supported by the new state, which had to remove the elements harmful to the development of the communes, as Marx had stated in the drafts of his letters to Zasulich.”52 Perhaps there would have been a way forward, here, for the world as a whole, a new sort of revolution, which would have made possible the “reconciliation of men at various moments of their development, without necessarily putting these on an axiological scale.”53
It is not clear how this new revolution would have been achieved, when Russia was decimated by the Civil War, and when revolutions in Europe failed to come off. Ignoring these impediments, Camatte simply notes: “the victory of Marxism hindered the realisation of this solution.”54 Camatte is surely right that, instead of being repudiated by events on the ground, Marx’s earlier, stagist perspective was hereby “codified in the name of Marxism”, as a programme of economic development and then put into practice by the Bolsheviks.55 The latter determined that “everything archaic and Asiatic had to be eliminated over the whole huge empire (and given that the revolutionary flood affected the peripheral countries, this took on a global importance).”56 Realising that the peasants could not really be coaxed into this modern world in formation, the Bolsheviks eventually set out to destroy the commune, to proletarianise the peasants, and to develop the forces of production as Russian capital had not. This programme became that of communist revolution in the twentieth century.
For Camatte, humanity had “the possibility of leaping over the CMP [capitalist mode of production],” but has now “lost” that possibility.57 We have paused to consider this “lost” possibility for a few reasons. First, among all the vaunted red threads of history — which trace their way back to an initial moment of betrayal, and hence to an unrealised potential for salvation — this one seems to go back furthest: to the conflicts within Marx’s own conception of the pathway to communism. But more than that, this alternative vision seems to us to get closer than any other to the heart of the matter, that is, the primary contradiction of the labour movement: to end all domination supposedly required the extension of one form of domination, namely proletarianisation, to the ends of the earth, with all the violence this process necessitated.58 The proletarian class — unified in and through the extension of the factory system — was thought to be the only class powerful enough to make the revolution.
In fact, instead of being a century of proletarian revolution, the twentieth century turned out, like the centuries that had passed before it, to be largely a century of peasant revolts. These revolts were aimed, initially, at securing a renewed access to non-market means of existence, which had been eroded both by the capillary action of capitalism and by the violent impositions of colonial administrations. Peasants were often backed by communists, who adopted peasant slogans while simultaneously turning them towards the new goal: industrial development, with the aim of creating the preconditions for full communism. Communists aimed at the maximal programme: freedom from want, freedom from labour, “freedom of life”, to be achieved, first of all, through the incorporation of humanity into the industrial proletariat, and only later by the abolition of that class and by the withering away of the state.59
As mentioned above, the premise behind this project proved false. Universal proletarianisation has now been achieved: through the combined action of capitalist and socialist development, as well as by means of other, unforeseen forces (the spread of the demographic transition). Consequently, there is no longer an outside to capitalist social relations. Almost everyone has been incorporated into the modern world, at least tendentially, although frequently without finding employment within capitalist enterprises. Yet the train wreck of world history has not arrived at communism, nor even come nearer to it. Universal proletarianisation did not give rise to the collective worker, as a “real unity” to stand against the unity-in-separation of capitalist society. And of course the peasants — on to whose revolts this project was grafted — were defeated even when their revolts were victorious.
In his texts — which to our mind pose the greatest challenge to Marxist history — Camatte seems almost exasperated that false ideas, or in other words, the Marxist-developmentalist project, somehow won out over the true ideas, based in Marx’s repudiation of stagism. This exasperation signals his failure to supercede an idealist perspective, which is the primary perspective that revolutionaries have taken with respect to their own history. In fact, history is not made by ideas, whether true or false, but rather, only in a clash of forces. There is one force that Camatte did not include in his discussion..
The peasantry, the peasant commune, persisted well into the twentieth century, that much is true. But almost everywhere the persistence of peasant communities also meant the persistence of old regime elites, whose massive power was also based in the countryside. These elites did not really form one class, but a set of overlapping power-structures. Their power was based, not in successful competition, but rather, on privileged access to resources, such as land and credit, and rights, such as the right to streams of income deriving from their ownership of, e.g., mines or positions in government.
As it turned out, these same elites were not displaced by bourgeois factory owners, with their purportedly enlightened, liberal ideals. Instead, the bourgeoisie was largely absorbed into the sabre-rattling old regime. This amalgamated ruling class typically set out to exclude workers from the polity. In some regions, they wanted more: they tried to turn back the clock, to “re-introduce caste society, that is, human groups with radically different entitlements and duties”, and so to re-establish regimes of personal domination in place of abstract ones.60 Such was true not only of the fascist parties of the mid-twentieth centuries. It was the notion of a whole range of political groupings, basing themselves on Social Darwinist ideas.
As long as these amalgamated elites retained power — in fact, their power was often augmented by what modernisation took place — the overall development of the productive forces was blocked outside of the core capitalist states. Trotsky makes precisely this point, at the start of The Revolution Betrayed, which we quoted above: “the history of recent decades very clearly shows that, in the conditions of capitalist decline [they were actually just a middling phase of capitalism’s rise], backward countries are unable to attain that level which the old centres of capitalism have attained.”61 He attributes this to the persistence of the old regime: “the overthrow of the old ruling classes did not achieve, but only completely revealed the task,” namely to undertake proletarianisation, as the precondition of communism.62 This task was not otherwise going to be undertaken, according to Trotsky, due to “the insignificance of the Russian bourgeoisie”, and the consequent weakness of the proletariat.63
Indeed, wherever the old regime remained at the helm, the peasantry persisted, while the proletariat remained small and weak, unable to play a decisive role in history. This peasantry, while sometimes willing to rise up against its oppressors, was at other times obedient to its overlords, particularly in the context of (often rigged) parliamentary elections. The same could be said of small but formally employed industrial workforces, which were often conciliatory towards the forces of order. All of this is clearly on view in the histories of low-income countries — particularly in Latin America, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia, but not in East Asia — where old regime elites retained much of their power.
It was in this context that, as we mentioned before, the strategists of the labour movement came to see history itself as blocked, and the unblockage of history as an urgent task. That task would require a further development of the productive forces, whether within capitalist society or in a planned, socialist developmentalist one. In either case, further development seemed to be the only way to strengthen and unify the proletariat against its enemies, which were legion (and this in spite of the fact that, in reality, that development spelled the doom of the labour movement itself). Meanwhile, old regime elites, backed by imperial powers — later including the United States — were actively engaged in turning back any movement in a liberatory direction.
Without condoning or condemning, we claim that these facts grounded the workers’ movement. Marx’s idea had been that the industrial working class would come to exist, and that circumstances beyond its control would force that class to call itself into question. But really, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the question was whether the class would exist at all, as a class of free commodity sellers, outside of a few centers in Northern Europe and among whites in the white-settler colonies. The world was changing rapidly, and it did so in ways that tended to enhance the power of the oppressors, both in the factories of Europe and in the colonies. In this context, fighting to exist became a revolutionary position.