We have no models. The history of past experiences serves only to free us of those experiences. — Mario Tronti, “Lenin in England”, 1964
What should we be doing today, if we are “for” the revolution? Should we build up our resources now, or wait patiently for the next rupture? Should we act on invariant revolutionary principles, or remain flexible, so we can adapt to new situations as they arise? Any response to these questions inevitably tarries with the history of revolutions in the twentieth century. The failure of those revolutions accounts for the fact that we are still here asking ourselves these questions. All attempts to account for our agency, today, are haunted by the debacles of the past. That is true even, or perhaps especially, for those who never mention the past in the first place. The reason for this is plain to see.
The history of communism is not only the history of defeats: taking risks, coming up against a stronger force and losing. It is also a history of treachery, or of what the Left has typically called “betrayal”. In the course of the traditional labour movement, there were many famous examples: of the Social Democrats and the trade union leadership at the start of World War I, of Ebert and Noske in the course of the German Revolution, of Trotsky in the midst of the Kronstadt Rebellion, of Stalin when he assumed power, of the CNT in Spain, when it ordered revolutionaries to tear down the barricades, and so on. In the anti-colonial movements of the mid-twentieth century, Chairman Mao, the Viet Minh, and Kwame Nkrumah were all called betrayers. Meanwhile, in the last major upsurge in Europe, it was the CGT in 1968 and the PCI in 1977, among others, who are said to have betrayed. The counter-revolution comes not only from the outside, but apparently also from the heart of the revolution itself.
That defeat is ultimately attributed to the moral failings of Left organisations and individuals, at least in leftist histories, is essential. If revolutions were defeated for some other reason (for example, as a result of the exigencies of unique situations), then there would be little for us to learn with respect to our own militancy. It is because the project of communism seemed to be blocked — not by chance, but by betrayal — that communist theory has come to revolve, as if neurotically, around the question of betrayal and the will that prevents it. The link between these two is key: at first glance, the theory of betrayal appears to be the inverse of a heroic conception of history. But betrayal delineates the negative space of the hero and thus of the figure of the militant. It is the militant, with her or his correct revolutionary line and authentic revolutionary will — as well as their vehicle: the party — who is supposed to stop the betrayal from taking place, and thus to bring the revolution to fruition.1
The origins of this thought-form are easy to identify: on 4th August 1914, German Social Democrats voted to support the war effort; the trade unions vowed to manage labour. The Great War thus commenced with the approval of socialism’s earthly representatives. A year after the war began, dissident anti-war socialists convened at Zimmerwald, under the pretence of organising a bird-watching convention, in order to reconstruct the tattered communist project. But even here, splits quickly emerged. The Left of that dissident group — which included both Lenin and representatives of the currents that would become the Dutch-German left communists — broke away from the main contingent, since the latter refused to denounce the Social Democrats outright. In their own draft proposal, the Left did not hold back: “Prejudiced by nationalism, rotten with opportunism, at the beginning of the World War [the Social Democrats] betrayed the proletariat to imperialism.”2 They were now “a more dangerous enemy to the proletariat than the bourgeois apostles of imperialism.”3 But this denunciation was only one instance of a trope repeated a thousand times thereafter. The organisations created for the purpose of defending working class interests — often doing so on the basis of their own notions of betrayal and the will — betrayed the class, time and again, in the course of the twentieth century.
Whether they call themselves communists or anarchists, those who identify as “revolutionaries” spend much of their time examining past betrayals, often in minute detail, to determine exactly how those betrayals occurred.4 Many of these examinations try to recover the red thread of history: the succession of individuals or groups who expressed a heroic fidelity to the revolution. Their very existence supposedly proves that it was possible not to betray and, therefore, that the revolution could have succeeded — if only the right groups had been at the helm, or if the wrong ones had been pushed away from the helm at the right moment. One becomes a communist or an anarchist on the basis of the particular thread out of which one weaves one’s banner (and today one often flies these flags, not on the basis of a heartfelt identity, but rather due to the contingencies of friendship). However, in raising whatever banner, revolutionaries fail to see the limits to which the groups they revere were actually responding — that is, precisely what made them a minority formation. Revolutionaries get lost in history, defining themselves by reference to a context of struggle that has no present-day correlate. They draw lines in sand which is no longer there.
We might be tempted to read the runes again, to try to solve the riddle of the history definitively: what was the right thing to do in 1917, 1936, 1968? However, the purpose here is not to come up with new answers to old questions. Instead, our intervention is therapeutic: we aim to confront the questioners, to challenge their motivating assumptions. Any strategic orientation towards the past must base itself, at least, on the assumption that the present is essentially like it. If the present is not like the past, then no matter how we solve the riddle of history, it will tell us very little about what we should be doing today.
Our goal is therefore to introduce a break, to cleave off the present from the past (and so, too, to sever the relation between betrayal and the will). If placed successfully, this periodising break will allow us to relate to the past as past, and the present as something else. Of course, this periodisation cannot be absolute. The present is not wholly unlike the past. The capitalist mode of production remains. Indeed, the capital–labour relation defines the shape of our lives more than it ever did those of our ancestors, and it does so in at least two fundamental ways.
First, compared to the past, a greater share of the world’s population today consists of proletarians and semi-proletarians: they must sell their labour-power in order to buy at least some of what they need. Second, this “some of what they need” has expanded massively so that today, people’s lives are deeply submerged within market relations: in the high income countries, and also in parts of the low-income world, workers not only pay rent and buy groceries. They purchase ready-made meals, talk to their families on cell phones, put their parents in nursing homes, and pop pills in order live, or live better. They must continue to work in order to afford these things, that is, in order to maintain their social ties.
Many revolutionaries take this ever-deepening imbrication within market relations as a sufficient proof that the present is like the past, in whatever senses are relevant. The result is that they relate to the past through a screen. The past becomes a fantasy projection of the present. Often enough, that screen is called “the Left”. Debates about history become debates about the Left: what it was, what it should have done (and there are some who, on that same basis, come to see themselves as “post-Left”). What escapes notice, thereby, is the absence, in our own times, of the context that shaped the world in which the Left acted in the course of the twentieth century, namely, the workers’ movement and its cycles of struggle.
The workers’ movement provided the setting in which the drama of “the Left” took place. That movement was not simply the proletariat in fighting form, as if any struggle today would have to replicate its essential features. It was a particular fighting form, which took shape in an era that is not our own. For us, there is only the “latecomers’ melancholy reverence”.5 It is our goal, in this essay, to explore this totality as past and to explain its dissociation from the present.
Our contention is that, if the historical workers’ movement is today alien to us, it is because the form of the capital–labour relation that sustained the workers’ movement no longer obtains: in the high-income countries since the 1970s and in the low-income countries since the 1980s (late workers’ movements appeared in South Africa, South Korea and Brazil, but all now present the same form: social democracy in retreat). Indeed, the social foundations on which the workers’ movement was built have been torn out: the factory system no longer appears as the kernel of a new society in formation; the industrial workers who labour there no longer appear as the vanguard of a class in the process of becoming revolutionary. All that remains of this past-world are certain logics of disintegration, and not only of the workers’ movement, but also of the capital–labour relation itself. To say so is not to suggest that, by some metric, all workers are “really” unemployed, or to deny that there is an emergent industrial proletariat in countries like India and China.
It is rather to point out that the following. The world economy is growing more and more slowly, on a decade by decade basis, due to a long period of overproduction and low profit rates. That sluggish growth has been associated, in most countries of the world, with deindustrialisation: industrial output continues to swell, but is no longer associated with rapid increases in industrial employment. Semi-skilled factory workers can thus no longer present themselves as the leading edge of a class-in-formation. In this context, masses of proletarians, particularly in countries with young workforces, are not finding steady work; many of them have been shunted from the labour market, surviving only by means of informal economic activity. The resulting low demand for labour has led to a worldwide fall in the labour-share of income, or in other words, to immiseration. Meanwhile, the state, in an attempt to manage this situation, has taken on massive amounts of debt, and has periodically been forced to undertake “reforms”— a term which in our era has come to mean a falling away of social protections — leaving a larger portion of the population in a tenuous position.
The social links that hold people together in the modern world, even if in positions of subjugation, are fraying, and in some places, have broken entirely. All of this is taking place on a planet that is heating up, with concentrations of greenhouse gases rising rapidly since 1950. The connection between global warming and swelling industrial output is clear. The factory system is not the kernel of a future society, but a machine producing no-future.
These are not merely political consequences of neoliberalism; they are structural features of the capitalist mode of production in our time. Struggles within and against this world are just beginning to take on a greater global significance, but they have not found a coherence comparable to that which pertained in an earlier era. A key feature of struggles today is precisely that, although they remain the struggles of workers, they present themselves as such only when they remain at the level of sectional struggles, that is, struggles of particular fractions of the class, which are almost always defensive struggles against ongoing “reforms” and “restructurings”. When struggles take on a wider significance, that is, for the class as a whole, then the unity they present, both to themselves and to others, goes beyond a class identity. Workers find a shared basis for struggle, not by means of the class belonging they have in common, but rather, as citizens, as participants in a “real democracy”, as the 99 percent, and so on. Such forms of identification sharply distinguish these workers’ struggles from the core struggles of the era of the workers movement. They have also made it difficult to see the way forward, to a communist future.
It is this context — that of the disintegration of the capital–labour relation, and of the unrealised potential for struggles to generate new sorts of social relations — that distinguishes the epoch in which we find ourselves from the past.
In the first issue of Endnotes we published a series of texts that we called “preliminary materials for a balance sheet of the twentieth century”. In this issue we draw up that balance sheet as it presents itself to us today. But before we do so it will be useful to contrast our approach with that of Théorie Communiste (TC), whose texts featured prominently in that first issue, and have continued to influence our thinking over the years.
The periodising break we present in this article has much in common with TC’S.6 Our perspective emerged, in part, out of an attempt to measure TC’s theory against the global history of the workers movement in the course of the twentieth century. One difference between our account and theirs is that TC try to ground their periodisation in Marx’s categories of formal and real subsumption. For Marx, these terms referred specifically to the transformation of the labour process; TC apply them to the capital–labour relation as a whole, and even to capitalist society.7 They place the break between formal and real subsumption around WWI, then divide the latter into two distinct phases. They then overlay this structural periodisation — of the “form” of the “capital–labour relation”— with a second periodisation — of communism, or what they call “cycles of struggle”— where the current phase, beginning in the 1970s, corresponds to a second phase of real subsumption:
However, somewhat strangely, the key break in one sequence does not match up with the key break in the other: a complete transformation in the “cycle of struggle” (the 1970s) corresponds to a minor transformation in the form of the “capital-labour relation”. This gives TC’s periodisation the tripartite form of a narrative structure, with beginning, middle and end. As usual in such structures, the middle term tends to dominate the others: TC define the first and last phases negatively in relation to the height of “programmatism” from the 1910s to the 1970s.8 Thus in their texts the ghost of programmatism, supposedly long slain, has a tendency to hang around and haunt the present moment. A more serious problem is that the schematism fits neatly, if at all, only in France (at best, it might apply to Western Europe).9 It can only with great difficulty be extended to the rest of the world, and is particularly inapposite to poor and late-developing countries.
In this article, we begin from what we consider to be the grain of truth in TC’s distinction between formal and real subsumption. Rather than two phases, we argue that their distinction roughly corresponds to two aspects of the world in which the workers movement unfolded. The first “formal” aspect had to do with the persistence of the peasantry — extended here to include the persistence of old regime elites whose power was based in the countryside — as a kind of outside to the capitalist mode of production. This outside was in the process of being incorporated into capitalist social relations, but this incorporation took a long time. The second, “real” aspect was the “development of the productive forces”, that is, cumulative increases in labour productivity and the accompanying transformations, both of the productive apparatus and of the infrastructure of capitalist society, on which it relies.
These two aspects in turn gave rise to the two imperatives of the workers movement: on the one hand, to fight against the old regime elites, who sought to deny workers the freedoms of liberal capitalist society (e.g., the right to vote, the freedom to choose one’s employer), and on the other hand, to set loose the development of the productive forces from the fetters that they encountered, particularly in late developing countries (those fetters often resulting, in part, from the persistence of the old regime).10 In each case our focus will be on the divergence between the expected and the actual consequences of capitalist development.
However, the concepts of formal and real subsumption are inadequate to the task of explaining the history of the workers’ movement. The two aspects of the movement that these concepts vaguely describe are not distinct periods, which could be precisely dated, but rather unfold simultaneously, much like the formal and real subsumption of the labour process itself. Nonetheless TC’s periodisation of communism remains close to our own. The key periodising break, for us as for TC, begins in the mid 1970s. The two aspects of the workers movement which we have described were both radically transformed in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Instead of a break between two “phases” of real subsumption, marked by “revolution” and “counter-revolution”, we see this transition in terms of the ongoing transformation of the labour process, the end of the peasantry, the slowing down of capitalist accumulation on a global scale, and the corresponding onset of a long period of deindustrialisation, all of which have transformed the conditions of workers’ struggles, for reasons explored in detail below. A communist horizon broke apart and dissolved in this moment, enclosing us, for a time, within a capitalist world seemingly without a vanishing point.
There is another distinction between our periodisation and TC’s, one more concerned with content than form. TC often refer to the workers’ movement (the era of “programmatism”) as a “cycle of struggle”. They thus fail to clearly distinguish between, on the one hand, cycles or waves of struggle, and on the other, the horizon of communism, within which cycles unfold. Both of these concepts are necessary to our balance sheet of the twentieth century.11
The concept of a cycle of struggle describes how the class clash takes place. The latter typically unfolds neither in long marches nor in short outbursts, but rather, in waves. There are times of reaction, when revolutionary forces are weak and episodic, but not entirely absent. These reactionary eras may last for decades, but they do end, at a moment that is extremely difficult to predict in advance. Revolt then breaks out, more and more frequently. Militants, who formerly made little impression on their fellows, now find their numbers swelling. Meanwhile, struggles take on a new content, evolve new tactics, and discover new forms of organisation (all three are won only through the frightening melée of suffering and retribution). Over time, struggles coalesce — but never in a linear way — in waves that ebb and flow over years. That is what makes revolution possible. Insofar as revolutions fail or counter-revolutions succeed, the cycle comes to an end, and a new period of reaction begins.
Revolutionary strategists have mostly concerned themselves with the high points of various cycles of struggle: 1917, 1936, 1949, 1968, 1977, and so on. In so doing, they usually ignore the context in which those cycles unfold. The workers’ movement was that context: it provided the setting in which distinct cycles unfolded: e.g. (in Europe) 1905–1921, 1934–1947, 1968–77. It was because each cycle of struggle unfolded in the context of the workers’ movement that we can say of their high points: these were not just ruptures within the capitalist class relation but ruptures produced within a particular horizon of communism.12 It is worth examining such ruptures in detail, although that is not the task we set for ourselves in this text.13 Our contention is that it is only by looking at the workers movement as a whole, rather than at distinct high points, that we can see what made these points distinct, or even, exceptional. The revolutions of the era of the workers’ movement emerged in spite of rather than in concert with overall trends, and did so in a manner that went wholly against the revolutionary theory of that era, with all its sense of inevitability.
Thus, for us, the workers’ movement was not itself a cycle of struggle. It made for a definite communist horizon, which imparted a certain dynamic to struggles and also established their limits. To say that the workers’ movement was a horizon of communism is to say that it was not the invariant horizon. It is necessary to reject the idea that communism could become possible again only on the basis of a renewal of the workers’ movement (which is not the same thing as organised workers’ struggle). We will here try to understand the conditions that, between the late 19th century and the 1970s, opened up the era of the workers’ movement, made for several cycles of struggle, and then irreversibly collapsed. We focus, in other words, on the longue durée of the movement.
The essential thing to understand about the workers’ movement is that it represented the horizon of communism during the era of the long rise of the capitalist mode of production, that is, an era in which “all fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions” were “swept away”. Marxists have often drawn the wrong conclusions from this passage in the Communist Manifesto. Thus, before we begin it will be helpful to first disabuse ourselves of two common fallacies.
The first fallacy is that capitalism is an inevitable or evolutionary stage of history. Marxists in the late 19th century often imagined that capitalist social relations were relentlessly spreading across the globe. They thought the city, the factory, and wage labour would soon absorb everyone. In actual fact by 1950, some two-thirds of the world’s population remained in agriculture, the vast majority self-sufficient peasants or herdsmen. Even in the high-income countries, some 40 percent of the workforce was in agriculture. It was not until the late 1970s and early 1980s that a tipping point was reached: the agricultural population of the high-income countries shrank to a vanishing point, and globally, for the first time in thousands of years, the majority of the world’s workers were no longer working in the fields. Thus, the global peasantry, and the “fast-frozen relations” with which it was associated, were not so quickly “swept away”. This house cleaning took longer than expected because — in contrast to what historical materialists imagined — there was no natural or automatic tendency for the global peasantry to fold into the proletariat, whether by the corrosion of market forces or by some tendency of capitalists to expropriate peasants en masse.
Indeed, capital did not inevitably draw peasants into its orbit. Whenever possible, peasants fought to secure their non-market access to land. In the 19th and most of the 20th century, peasants’ eviction from the land was necessarily a political act. But then, such acts were rarely undertaken by capitalists, who preferred to employ non-free or semi-free labour wherever it was available, in order to produce for world markets (where levels of inequality were high, domestic markets were tiny). In fact, when expropriation was undertaken, it was often by representatives of the labour movement, or at least, with their support.
Proletarians could support the project of de-peasantisation because peasants were embedded in pre-capitalist class relations with landlords. These patriarchal social forms, stratified into castes or estates, offered little opportunity for change or mobility. Old-regime elites, oriented towards military affairs, were to some degree interested in pursuing alliances with capitalists (often the children of those elites, facing up to a changing world); however, this amalgamated elite-class saw nothing to gain by extending the franchise. Elites often did not even consider workers to be of the same species, that is, human beings capable of managing the affairs of the polity, let alone deserving of doing so. Such elites did not give up their privileges without a fight. Observers in the nineteenth century — or for that matter, in the twenty-first — can be forgiven for imagining that “free labour” was the inevitable accompaniment of capitalist accumulation. The history of the twentieth century showed that “free labour” had to be won.
The second fallacy is that the development of capitalism tends to unify the workers. The labour market may be singular, but the workers who enter it to sell their labour power are not. They are divided by language, religion, nation, race, gender, skill, etc. Some of these differences were preserved and transformed by the rise of capitalism, while others were newly created. Such remixing had ambivalent consequences. Most divisions proved to be obstacles to organising along lines of class solidarity. However, some pre-existing forms of collectivity proved to be their own sources of solidarity, an impetus to mass direct-action.
Champions of the workers’ movement declared that the development of the forces of production would get rid of divisions among the workers. The dispersed masses, the “class in itself”, would be formed by factory discipline into a compact mass, which might then be capable of becoming the “class for itself”. Thus if the workers would only give up on their attempts to preserve the old ways, if they would only give in to the scientific (and constant) reorganisation of the workplace, they would soon find themselves positively transformed: they would be unified by the factory system into a “collective worker”. For a while, in the early part of the twentieth century, this vision seemed to be coming true.
But in fact, these transformations led to the integration of workers (for the most part, former peasants) into market society, not only at the point of production, but also in exchange and in consumption, where workers were atomised. It was this atomising feature of the new world, not the cooperative aspects of work in the factory, that would prove dominant. That was true not only in consumer markets, where workers exchanged wages for goods, but also in labour markets, where they exchanged their promise to work for a promised wage — and even in the factories themselves, since divisions among workers were retained and made anew. The resulting intra-class competition was only partly mitigated by unions, which acted as rival salesmen’s associations, attempting to corner the market in labour power.
Here is the unity-in-separation of market society. People become ever more interdependent through the market, but this power comes at the expense of their capacities for collective action. Capitalist society reduces workers to petty commodity sellers, providing them with some autonomy, but always within limits. In hindsight, it is clear that the dream of the workers’ movement — that an “actual unity” of workers, as opposed to their unity-in-separation, would be realised in the factories through the further development of the productive forces — was not true. Such an actual unity can come about only by means of a communist transcendence of capitalist social relations.