State and Revolution: 100 years later

One Hundred Years later, State and Revolution remains one of the most beloved works of Lenin. Yet what can we learn from the attempts to implement its vision in the Russian Revolution?

State and Revolution is one of the most beloved works of Lenin, and for good reason. It is perhaps the finest work of Marxology, where digging through the notebooks of Marx and Engels is done not to prove an academic thesis but to prove an important political point: that the proletariat cannot simply inherit the bourgeois state and use it to build socialism, but must smash it in order to create a new state based on workers rule. Lenin also utilizes Marx and Engels to discern how this state is fundamentally different to the bourgeois state, drawing from Marx’s work on the Paris Commune especially. From these conclusions Lenin takes a political gamble. His party leads an insurrection to overthrow the provisional government around the call for “all power to the Soviets”, calling for a new state in Russia based on the power of the Soviets, or regional councils of workers and soldiers that were being formed both spontaneously and by party militants.

For Lenin, “all power to the Soviets” only made sense as a political slogan and plan for action when the Bolsheviks and those agreeing with their general programme had a majority in the Soviets, which in a sense were alternative “parliaments” for the working class. When the Bolsheviks were able to build a majority coalition of their party, left-SRs, anarchists and Menshevik Internationalists in the Soviets who wanted the overthrow of the government, an end to the war, and land to the peasants then “all power to the Soviets” was a slogan that made perfect sense.

So for the Bolsheviks, State and Revolution provided a sort of initial guide to how they would approach the revolution and rebuild society. The Soviets would take state power with a revolutionary programme and the working class would be armed as the military and police were demolished, the working class to take command. This would eventually happen in Russia, but initially the Soviets and the parties working within them (the Bolsheviks being the leading party) had to figure out how to run a country and develop a proletarian rather than bourgeois civil society.

Before delving into how the ideals of State of Revolution came into contradiction with the concrete realities of the revolution and what one must learn from that, I will go over the basic arguments of the book, which mostly come from the works of Marx and Engels. For Lenin, the state is defined as a “product of the irreconcilability of classes”, meaning that as long as classes exist there will be some sort of state which ensures the reproduction of those class relations with the ruling class having political hegemony. The state is not a neutral territory where classes can “reconcile” but ultimately “a power standing above society and alienating itself more and more from it”. Why is the state alien to society? Because it is a protection racket for the minority of rich capitalists, not a means for the majority of society to actually exercise control over politics. It creates “order”, but this order is strictly a bourgeois law and order that codifies the domination of the ruling class.  

Further, the state is a “special body of armed men”, the military and police, who are able execute the rule of law. Lenin mostly seems to find this important because it shows that the state is based on force. It is based not just through force, but force as executed by a special body, i.e. a separate section of the social division of labor (cops and military). The abolition of the police and armed forces, is the destruction of that part of the bourgeois state which defends and underwrites that state-form’s character as being above society; alienated from humanity as a whole.

The state is also described by Lenin as an “instrument” through which the ruling class exploits the oppressed class. This has been criticized as seeing the state as a mere instrument that classes can simply wield. But this is taking the metaphor too seriously. The point is that as long as there are class divisions, state power will exist because there will be need for a body that ensures capitalist norms of order than allow the ruling class to operate (or a body to suppress the remnants of the capitalist order if a workers state). Lenin doesn’t exactly go deep into the structural mechanics of why the state, while aiming to appear to be neutral, ultimately serves the interests of the ruling class. Part of the reason why is that the state is a tribute/tax/rentier taking organization and reproduces by taxing capitalists; therefore it has an interest in capitalist development being as successful as possible. The state also connects a strong economy to a strong military, the military bureaucracy wishing to project the hegemony of a capitalist state as dominant in the world market. In general, the state reproduces the social division of labor, and it reproduces a capitalist social division of labor. Therefore the capitalist or bourgeois state cannot act in a way that doesn’t allow for the reproduction of capitalism, and essentially provides the framework through which this can occur.

Lenin goes on to argue that classes can be abolished (though without saying at a national or international level), hence ending the social antagonisms that lead to a state existing. Yet there will be a transitional state, or dictatorship of the proletariat, that will replace the old capitalist state, based on the power of the workers. This state is sometimes called a “semi-state” because it is a state in the process of overthrowing the very foundations upon which it is based. Engels is quoted as saying “The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by that conduct the processes of production. The state is not “Abolished”. It Withers Away.Essentially, as the antagonisms of class divisions are transcended by communist relations, the state loses its power as a coercive force over society and simply becomes a means of administering society in harmonious way. This is contrary to the anarchist notion that the state itself will be abolished in an act of insurrection, or the Maoist notion that the withering of the state must be pushed along through “Cultural Revolution” or class struggle under socialism. While it is true this process will require struggle against bureaucrats, because the proletariat holds state power it can fight bureaucracy through transforming its actual roots, the social division of labor, and not just host purges to replace them with different bureaucrats.

This general outline, backed up quite sufficiently by quotes from Marx and Engels, is primarily an attack on the Social-Democrats like Kautsky and Bernstein who deny the need for a violent overthrow. While Lenin was a longtime admirer of Kautsky, by 1917 he had come to see Kautsky as not sufficiently stressing the need to smash the bourgeois state in earlier works like The Social Revolution and the Day After (1903). Kautsky instead saw the proletariat’s party essentially becoming a majority in parliament, and then making parliament into the main ruling body of the state. For Lenin, bourgeois parliament was simply not a fit form of representation for the working class. Yes, work in it, but do so to destroy it was his position. Lenin goes as far to say that violent insurrection is a determining point in whether a proletarian revolution has occurred or not; at this point Lenin has no illusions of the bourgeoisie peacefully surrendering its power. This position, that it was necessary to smash the state, was not always the opinion of Lenin. It was initially Bukharin and Pannekoek who would come to convince Lenin of the correctness of this position, that it was not an anarchist deviation from Marx.  

It is also an essentially correct general outline: the proletariat overthrows the bourgeois state, the proletariat becomes the new state, and this state withers away as classes whither away. Those who saw no rupture needed between the bourgeois state and proletarian state were simply reformists in the end, as they could not grasp a key element of revolution. Lenin backs up this reading using the piece Civil War in France by Marx, where the Paris Commune, considered by Marx and Engels to be a living example of the dictatorship of the proletariat, is examined.

The Commune becomes an object of study that is meant to show what kind of state will replace the bourgeois and facilitate the rule of the workers. Lenin argues the first and most important decree is the disarming of the ruling class and the arming of the workers, replacing the police and military with the armed working class. Since the state is at its core the general means of coercion, placing these means in the hands of the workers commences the smashing of the bourgeois state. Lenin also stresses the democratic nature of the Commune, pointing out how elected officials had strict term limits, recallability, and an average worker’s wage. He also argues for simplifying the process of government to the point where any worker could be called on to participate, summed up by the saying “every cook can govern.” For Lenin both parliament and the ‘parasite state’ are also wiped away, though elective and representative features still exist. It is just that the legislative and executive branch are merged and government bodies are working bodies, e.g representative-legislative with strictly subordinate executive committees.

Much of State and Revolution also comes as a response to the anarchists as well as the social-democrats. Lenin sees the anarchists idea of abolition of the state “muddled and non revolutionary” as the state is a product of the social division of labor which is not transformed overnight and cannot be left to be controlled by the servants of capital. The anarchists simply proclaim to be for the abolition of the state, but have no plan to actually abolish it. Those who simply say they will abolish the state immediately lack an understanding of the historical conditions that produced the state and lead to its existence. Many anarchists argue that simply decentralizing power will end the state, while Lenin stresses the need for centralism and unity in the proletarian state. Yet for Lenin democracy is just as important as centralism, just not sufficient on its own, and the two are not to be counterposed. One must “develop democracy to the utmost” but not separate from the actual tasks of economic transformation in the revolution. Yet while in the proletarian state democracy is developed to the utmost, Lenin cites Engels on the ‘overcoming of democracy’, stating that in a communist future the need for democratic decision making where the majority rules over the minority will no longer be needed because there will be no need for a state.

The transition to Communism is also detailed, essentially taking the schema of dictatorship of the proletariat -> lower phase communism -> high phase communism from the the Marx’s Gothakritik. These sections essentially summarize how the development of communism from the ashes of capitalism will gradually make the state a relic of the past, replacing the rule of law via a coercive mechanism with the force of social norm in a real human community. Yet it also explains this will be a protracted process where elements of capitalism will remain and be phased out as possible. Lenin does mention the problems of bureaucracy, but acts as if simply putting them on an average salary will suffice to keep them in check.

So how does this all hold up today? First of all are the basics of Lenin’s theory of the state. The State under Capitalism is essentially a holdover of the centralized absolutist state renovated to meet the needs of capitalism and democratized to the extent popular struggles have pushed it to do so. That the state serves the ruling class is obvious, but the state also performs certain communal functions for society that cannot be left to private interests. It also has a military function that can’t be reduced to capital accumulation, as even a proletarian state would still need a military to defend itself from capitalist invasion. This is not to say these functions aren’t operated in a class biased matter, but that the state cannot simply be reduced to a body of armed men that defend the interest of the ruling class. There is a non-elected bureaucracy in the state that is not entirely parasitic but necessary for the day to day running of cities for example. Until their skills are redistributed, society will still need to rely on them, similar to how the Bolsheviks had to rely on Tsarist military generals. One could say that Lenin overestimates how quickly a complete break with the bourgeois state and its bureaucracy can take place, as if the Soviets can simply pop up and replace it once they are revolutionary enough. Yet while the Soviets can make important decisions, the actual running of the state on a day to day basis will still fall to the bureaucracy if the Soviets cannot perform their function.

This is not to say that “every cook cannot govern” contrary to Lenin, but that there are real embedded problems with bureaucracy that can’t simply be dealt with through force. Specialists and bureaucrats do contain monopolies of knowledge that allows them a privileged place in society as a result of that knowledge being necessary for society. Lenin doesn’t make a plan for dealing with this, but it becomes a problem on day one when the Red Guards have to break a Civil Servant strike opposed to the new Soviet regime. The same problem exists in industry and the military, with loyalists of the old regime being relied upon to keep society running and defending the workers republic. Relying on these specialists created problems for the proletarian state, as there was no plan to phase them out and collectivize their skills, creating the basis for a “red bureaucracy” that would become a force of conservatism in the new Soviet Republic. Some system must be developed to a) observe and control the bureaucrats and b) break down their knowledge monopolies and simplify the administration to make it so that they are easily replaceable. Breaking down these knowledge monopolies involves not only technological advances but also expansion of educational opportunities for the masses.

There is also the problem of “all power to the Soviets” as the solution to the state. Soviets are councils of workers that tend to form from strike committees in cross industry mass strikes to make decisions in those particular struggles. In a way they are “united fronts of the workers movement” where all different tendencies and trades in a region unite to make large scale political decisions in a mass struggle. After the mass struggle is over, the Soviets are no longer needed, and authority returns to the trade union and political parties. So therefore soviets have a sort of transient nature; they are not standing bodies that continuously meet to make decisions in most cases. Lenin’s aim was to turn the the Soviets into such organizations that would run society. The problem was that he ignored other important aspects of the state, such as the role of political parties.

If one has no political parties to choose from in voting for candidates, or only one, the result is that Soviets or other mass democratic assemblies simply will become rubber stamp organizations for the one ruling party. This is exactly what happened in the USSR – the Soviets tried to become the state but ultimately authority fell to the Bolshevik Party. It is similar for the local councils in Cuba. Lenin says nothing about the role of political parties in the new proletarian state in his essay, but as every political regime ever has revealed, the ruling party or parties largely determine the character of the regime. While the Bolsheviks did not seize power alone (they did so in alliance with the Left-SRs), their break with the Left SRs and the crisis of war communism sending proletarians to the front meant that the Soviets simply lost their ability to act as standing bodies of authority for the working class. By the mid 1920s Bolshevik delegates would dominate the soviets, the rest having no party affiliation with other parties being banned. No parties or even party factions meant workers had no real choices in voting for a political programme, but simply voted for the personalities of those running, or who could be best directed by the party to do their job.

A key insight that Lenin misses here, ironically enough, is the importance of the party. A Soviet democracy must actually be one where democratically organized mass parties collaborate. All states are essentially party-states to some degree, but this doesn’t mean they can’t be democratic. In general, a state is only as democratic as its ruling parties are. This means the internal regime of the those parties; do the rank and file meaningfully determine policy, are factions allowed? Even in a “one party state” different factions of the party can serve as different political options that people can vote for. This opportunity closed in 1921 with the banning of party factions. The nature of the soviets in a state where one monolithic party was ruling could only be to legitimize the rule of that party, and so any hope of bringing workers into the administration of society (which was still maintained in the course of the Civil War) was lost. The role of soviets became changed not because the Bolsheviks crushed them, but because conditions of the war, loss of interparty democracy, and the betrayal of the Left-SRs who launched a terror campaign against the signing of the Brest-Litovsk treaty (which also meant the armed wing of the revolution, the cheka, would become monopolized by the Bolsheviks). Whether soviets, citizens councils, or mass assemblies, these regional decision-making bodies on their own do not ensure democratic governance. This doesn’t mean rejecting such bodies, but realistically understanding their role, and the need for political parties that are themselves member-run and democratic.

An argument often made (see Brinton’s Bolsheviks and Workers Control) is that the Party essentially betrayed the Soviets by promoting its authority against their authority, overthrowing the authentic revolution. In this narrative the Soviets are basically “destroyed” by the Bolsheviks. What happened was moreso that the Soviets were hollowed out and the Bolshevik Party was the only force left to fill in the gap of authority. Ultimately, for the soviets to have governed, it would have been in partnership with a political party/parties and not in opposition to them. It is not possible to remove political parties from councils without banning parties outright, which would simply be a way to destroy programmatic politics and meaningful democracy. Political parties are not contrary to democracy, but essential for it, as no parties means no real political choices can be voted on, just personalities. Rather than looking at the question in terms of “do the Soviets govern or does the party govern” we should look at it in terms of “how will the parties and councils work together to ensure a government based on proletarian democracy.”

There is also the question of how useful the model of the “Soviet pyramid” for socialists governance is. To summarize, the model works where lower bodies elect delegates to regional bodies, and these delegates then elect the delegate of higher, central bodies. This idea is supposed to give more power to lower regional bodies but instead allows a single party to more easily concentrate power within the councils. This is because of a mediary regional council elects the central council, which creates a degree of separation between the voters and the central council. This ‘pyramid’ can have even more layers of mediation between the voters and the central gov, increasingly alienating the voters from their representatives. A more simple way to go would be to have local councils elected by locals and a central council elected universally that local councils are responsible to. While Soviet pyramid model is favored by Trotskyists, Council Communists, and Anarchists as “more democratic” it is actually less democratic.


An example of the “Soviet Pyramid” model from Cornelius Castoriadis, 1972.


This is not to dismiss the importance of councils of workers and local assemblies of governance in the revolution. As Engels pointed out in a footnote to Marx’s 1850 Address to the Communist League, “local and provincial government” can become “the most powerful lever of the revolution”. He cites the example of the local assemblies and communes of governance in the French Revolution, which were able to fall within the general laws set by the national assembly while pushing the revolution forward. It was these types that were first destroyed in the Thermidor according to Engels. Furthermore Engels argues that such “local and provincial governance does not “stand in contradiction to political, national centralization.” Rather than seeing a strict dichotomy between the locals and central governance Engels sees them both playing a cooperative role.

There is no doubt that such organizations like the Soviets becoming hollowed out signified a defeat for the Russian Revolution. Yet one must understand that the power of the Soviets ultimately failed because the party regime failed, and both must work together to be truly democratic. Organizations like the citizens councils of the Paris Commune and the Russian Soviets where the masses partake in government are essential for any kind of “proletarian civil society” to exist. The point is that we cannot count on the spontaneous activities of councils to solve the problem of governance; they are not a solution to bureaucracy on their own.  

Of course one cannot blame the failures of the Bolsheviks to overcome bureaucracy on Lenin’s lack of clear vision or a theoretical blunder. Ultimately the question of bureaucracy comes down to class struggle, the battle for proletarians to control officials and specialists through democratic measures. Yet Russian proletarians faced a situation of being in a peasant dominated country with a lack of modernization, hoping their revolution would spread internationally. To quote Rosa Luxemburg: “It would be demanding something superhuman from Lenin and his comrades if we should expect of them that under such circumstances they should conjure forth the finest democracy, the most exemplary dictatorship of the proletariat and a flourishing socialist economy. By their determined revolutionary stand, their exemplary strength in action, and their unbreakable loyalty to international socialism, they have contributed whatever could possibly be contributed under such devilishly hard conditions. The danger begins only when they make a virtue of necessity and want to freeze into a complete theoretical system all the tactics forced upon them by these fatal circumstances, and want to recommend them to the international proletariat as a model of socialist tactics.”

Lenin wrote more about issues of bureaucracy in his latter years, after it became clear the vision of Soviet democracy was not the immediate outcome of the revolution. Instead the regime of the NEP, closer economically to Lenin’s original plans, took place of the unfeasible attempt at ‘war communism’ and Lenin began in his last days to try and solve the problem of bureaucracy. Ultimately, a full on Thermidor with the rise of Stalinism ensured these issues would never be properly dealt with, the NEP society that was the ultimate outcome of the revolution being destroyed in favor of a militaristic bureaucratic industrialism.

While State and Revolution is a masterpiece of communist theory, it has certain limitations that have been shown by the historical attempts to apply its ideas. It does provide a useful framework for thinking about the state, emphasizing the importance of its inherently class nature.What it doesn’t contain is all the answers about the complexity of the state during the transition to communism and exact answers to how one will construct the dictatorship of the proletariat. Rather than simply studying State and Revolution on its own we must study the Russian Revolution to see where its assumptions hold up, and when they don’t, why this is the case.


The Recuperation of Authentic Outrage

By Ian Hinson and Aydin Jang. Originally posted here

The victory of the Trump campaign, and the catapultic rise of the alt-right movement from the shadows of the internet into the mainstream political paradigm, has stimulated a mobilization of opposition, and an immediate call to action. However, the specter of performative activism and pseudo-outrage continues to blur the lines between genuine action and specious placation.

As noted in Internationale Situationniste #9, the S.I. appropriately identified the neutralization of revolutionary strategies, concepts, and images, for the purpose of emptying them of their subversive content, thus making them compatible with mainstream, bourgeois culture. They formulated this process under the concept of recuperation. Media culture absorbs and diffuses radical ideas as a way to create a homogeneous plane of discourse, in which even the most mutinous of societal critiques are brought under the dominant space of acceptable discussion. In doing so, not only are the proponents of these revolutionary concepts forced to struggle for control over their own definitions, but the revolutionaries themselves are effectively dragged into the realm of their own repurposed concepts, in an attempt to retain coherency and an ideological relation to the general public. The S.I. go on to point out a few notable examples of this process of recuperation:

From Khrushchev to the priests, socialism as a concept has been given the richest variety of contradictory meanings ever consolidated in one single word. Unions have undergone such transformations that at this point the most effective strikes are those organized by the members of the privileged classes, as evidenced by the Belgian doctors this year. Not even anarchy has been spared, as one can tell from the “anarchist opinions” of the pro-Chinese Mr Siné and, even more so, by the anarchist opinions of Le Monde libertaire

Acting in accordance with capital’s need to exert its dominion over nature, it also extends its domination over the domain of language, and over the realm of acceptable expressions of outrage. One needn’t look any further than the outpouring of protests and demonstrations which have materialized over the past few weeks for an example of this subsumption of the limits of radical outrage, with millions participating across the globe in a show of solidarity to those affronted over the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump. Multiple sources have stated that the “Women’s March” in particular, was the largest demonstration in Washington DC’s history, and while the ability to organize such a massive gathering of bodies is quite impressive, one must ask how effective this demonstration actually was at conveying its message. Moreover, what exactly is the praxis of these types of demonstrations, and why were the small glimpses of authentic outrage so universally condemned by the media, and similarly by the liberal stratum who made up the majority of the protest’s population? To put it simply, liberal activism can be described as that of an empty signifier, that is to say, it acts as an imitation of the radical activism in which it seeks to replace. It creates a stage for the general public to try on the mask of the political radical, while at the same time allowing for the members of the privileged classes to direct this performance by redefining what radical action actually looks like.The political radical in the sphere of mainstream discourse is no longer the black bloc creating a cacophony of kindled police mobiles and broken windows. The political radical has been recodified as the football star who kneels during the national anthem, or the movie star who gives an apathetic, detached speech during an awards show. The political radical no longer sees action as an instrument to realize systematic change, action is reduced down to means with no end, where the demonstration is a statement and nothing more.

Herbert Marcuse discusses the disarming of political action in his essay Repressive Tolerance:

Thus, within a repressive society, even progressive movements threaten to turn into their opposite to the degree to which they accept the rules of the game. To take a most controversial case: the exercise of political rights (such as voting, letter-writing to the press, to Senators, etc., protest-demonstrations with a priori renunciation of counter-violence) in a society of total administration serves to strengthen this administration by testifying to the existence of democratic liberties which, in reality, have changed their content and lost their effectiveness. In such a case, freedom (of opinion, of assembly, of speech) becomes an instrument for absolving servitude.²

What Marcuse sets out to illuminate in this analysis is not only the ineffectiveness of bourgeois activism to actualize systemic change, but also how this type of activism is metamorphosed into action which exculpates the oppressive class for their exploitation. Opposition via political activity reconciles itself with the status quo through its own existence. It contains itself within the limitations of the very system it seems to resist. “It is the people who tolerate the government, which in turn tolerates opposition within the framework determined by the constituted authorities.” It is thus apparent that the dominant forms of activism represent not a subversive expression of dissent, but as an implicit consent to be governed.

Engagement in activism constitutes an intervention within the space where politics and everyday life intersect. In this way it reflects the totalitarian nature of a democratic society, which controls the totality of life by appearing as the controlled object. In reality, of course, it is the individual whose life becomes co-opted by the machinery of the state through their own supposed participation in its process. This is the principal contradiction that the modern activist continuously and quixotically struggles to overcome. The politicization of human affairs is a component of the greater social phenomenon of alienation, as people act to strip themselves of autonomy through ritualized self-exploitation.

Politics function to a great extent on an abstract level, an intangible expression of the tangible violence of the state. It is a representational system, distorting images of the world by design. The public discourse that arises from this system is a reflection of a reflection, a second degree of non-reality. The rupture of this elaborate funhouse is seen through an act of physical violence, a refusal to engage in the maddening “dialogues” that form the basis of the mainstream consensus. With continued complacency, and an acceptance of this image of reality, that image becomes actualized. This series of relationships and social processes that constitute this spectacular construction becomes the manifestation of reality itself because it is understood that it is the totality of observable reality. The mystification of these spectacular aspects place them at the center of the social world. Guy Debord examined this phenomenon in his Society of the Spectacle:

The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as all of society, as part of society, and as instrument of unification. As a part of society it is specifically the sector which concentrates all gazing and all consciousness. Due to the very fact that this sector is separate, it is the common ground of the deceived gaze and of false consciousness, and the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of generalized separation.³

We can see that this mask obstructs a clear view of the reality of society. The “politeness” of modern governance works to produce a societal consensus, one which inverts the truth of objective conditions by presenting helplessness as autonomy, coercion as accord. The maintenance of this phenomenological project is one of the most pressing issues of late capitalist modernity, as the intensification of crisis creates fissures in the objectified worldview.

It is this consensus which the activist, consciously or unconsciously, seeks to reproduce and perpetuate. Activism, as a by-product of capitalist democracy, is the art of manufacturing appearances. What is more important is to display anger, to compress it into a viewable form, rather than to actually act upon it. In the age of social media, this spectacular method can be virtualized and magnified, further diluting whatever emotional message was originally embedded. Activism is both an asocial and social affair, generating crowds that perform mechanistic demonstrations of indignation, brought together by an empty non-message. The deception of such crowds is that they are not so much crowds, but collections of individuals who are more focused on transmitting expressions of false personal investment to each other. The protester does not march towards any specific goal, but to engage in the act of marching itself. Expressive activism (protest politics) is the realization of the theater-form within our social world.

Consider the broken window, universally condemned as a product of “senseless violence”. Destroying a window attacks an ideological barrier as well as a physical one. The normative discourse of our society is one of simulated inaction, concealing brutality within pacifistic rhetoric. To subvert this false language and reveal its true nature is to speak the more “primitive” tongue of physicality. The burning limo and the smashed shopfront are not de-rationalized because they accomplish nothing, in fact the very opposite is true. They symbolize a death of passivity, posing an existential threat to the political mindset. This is why the puppets of the old order must denounce them as acts of insanity.

The limits of rational activity within a sphere of society are set according to the dominant narrative at play. For this reason, riots are depicted as the wrong way to dissent, that is to say, actualized resistance is an improper form of resistance. Violence is not sophisticated, they proclaim, the-pen-is-mightier-than-the-sword and so on. Once again, this returns to the very simple contradiction of democratic governance, that of representation versus content. Such a system can only survive by embracing its own contradiction, pursuing violence with greater theatrical flair, the imposition of a terroristic peace. Activism is only an expression of helplessness in the face of this terrible force. The ideological constraints reproduced by the activist are a consequence of state power, and only reinforce it, despite appearances.. As such, political performance is an expression of the cyclical nature of society’s administration. The perpetuation of the democratic ideology allows exploitative relations to produce the conditions for such an ideology to take root.

To point out the danger explicit violence poses to this system is not to say that the fracturing of a sheet of glass is such a momentous occasion. Breaking a window does not blow away the millions of police and soldiers and all their guns. Such an act does not practically undermine the state any more than a peaceful march does. Political violence faces the same problem that political debate does. The attempt to exert pressure and to force demands onto such a powerful entity is like screaming into a deaf ear.

It is violence as a form of action, in its movement beyond structure and symbolism, that threatens the present order. It bypasses the activist’s struggle to overcome the contradiction of their own work, and lays bare the foundations of the capitalist state. Beyond the political, lies the potential for a reconstitution of the human, if only we can cease to reproduce the conditions of our own oppression. It is only when it tries to overcome the state, rather than shape it, that any sort of resistance transforms itself into revolution.


[1] “Words and Those Who Use Them” Situationist International Online. Web. 09 Feb. 2017.

[2] Marcuse, Herbert, and Wolff, Robert Paul. Repressive Tolerance. Berkeley, Callif.: Printed by the Berkeley Commune, 1968. Print.

[3] Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black & Red, 1977. Print.

Nothing new to look at here: Towards a Critique of Communization

Donald Parkinson takes a look at some of the theorists under the label of ‘communization’ and takes a stab at their ideas. 


Awaiting the release of Endnotes 4 I decided to write a critique of the broad tendency of communization, focusing on Dauve and TC in specific. Quite a few people have asked about my critique of Endnotes and Communization theory more broadly, as I mentioned these things briefly in my earlier piece Towards a Communist Left. As a result I decided to elaborate on my critique of these currents as well as provide a critical introduction to communization in general.

Communization must be placed in the context of the overall defeat of the proletariat’s wave of struggles in the 20th century. This defeat has in many ways led to a crisis of Marxism, where increasingly isolated theorists look to make innovations and breaks from orthodoxy in hope of ‘saving’ Marxist theory and politics. Sometimes breaks with orthodoxy are necessary, yet there is also a danger of needlessly breaking with orthodoxy with the hope that one is making real theoretical innovation when instead the result is just a repeat of past bad politics. While communization theory does make the occasional interesting insight and serve as a useful theoretical foil it largely is the case that what it offers is not a fresh new perspective for marxist politics but a repeat of Kropotkinist and Sorelian critiques of Marxism with more theoretical sophistication.

Communization refers to relatively broad tendency of writers and journals that don’t all agree on everything. When referring to communization one has to be careful what they say, as there is as much divergence amongst ‘communizers’ as there is ideological unity. Overall what unites this tendency is a belief that revolution will have to immediately establish communist relations of production from day one, that an immediate break from waged labor, commodity production and the value-form is to be favored as opposed to an approach where the working class holds political power and dismantles capitalism in a transition period that may temporarily maintain aspects of capitalism. Added to this is a general hostility to organized politics and anything resembling “old forms” like parties, councils, and unions.

Overall communization can fall into two camps: Gilles Dauve’s “normative” communization and Theorie Communiste’s “structuralist” theory of communization. The key differences between these tendencies can be found in Volume 1 of Endnotes, essentially a debate between Dauve and TC. In his pamphlet When Insurrections Die Dauve puts forward the thesis that the proletariat failed in past revolutions because it didn’t make a sufficient break with waged labor, opting for self-management and collectivization instead where labor vouchers replaced money. Using Spain as his example, Dauve argues that these revolutions failed because they aimed to manage the proletarian condition rather than abolish it, therefore reproducing capitalism in a different form. Therefore the idea of a transition period where the proletariat raises itself to the ruling class within a decaying capitalism is to be rejected in favor of the immediate ‘self-abolition’ of the proletariat.

Dauve’s work is in many ways an attempt to square the insights of old school left-communists like Pannekoek and Bordiga with ideas of the Situationist International. Dauve is just as critical of workers councils managing production as he is critical of the party-form, opting for an approach that focuses on the content of revolution, this content being an immediate break with waged labor and money aka communization. For Dauve the abolition of value is key to revolution, something that can not be achieved gradually or “by half steps” but in the process of insurrection itself. This means rejecting any kind of scheme involving ‘labor vouchers’ or ‘labor notes’ where labor-time is directly measured to determine the worker’s access to the social product, even if these measures are merely temporary transitional steps towards communism.

Dauve makes many important points, many of which are re-iterations of classic left-communist politics (for example, rejecting the anti-fascist popular front). Bringing value and its abolition back into the picture is certainly important, reminding us that communism is not simply a better way of managing capitalist forms but a radical break from waged-labor and the commodity-form itself. His critiques of councilist formalism and workers self-management also are welcome as antidotes to many ideas among the anti-stalinist left that act as if stalinism would work if more self-management existed (PARECON comes to mind). It’s also a move away from traditional leftist workerism, that valorizes workers as workers rather than a class which abolishes itself and all other classes. Putting the transformation of social relations at the heart of communist revolution is certainly a step forward. Yet Dauve has little to suggest how this can be achieved, only stating that Kautksy and Lenin’s formula of merging socialism with the workers movement is to be avoided because communism is imminent to the struggle of labor against capital.

TC responds to Dauve by accusing his argument of essentially being tautological: the communist movement failed because it failed to produce communism. For TC Dauve sees communism as a normative essence within the proletariat itself, and that past revolutions failed because the proletariat failed to live up to this essence or are betrayed by managers and chose to manage capitalism instead of create communism. Dauve fails to answer the question of why the workers didn’t create communism, and instead simply states the obvious. Rather than being some essence to the proletariat, TC see communism as a product of the historical periodization of capitalism, which is itself a series of cycles of contradictions between the proletariat and capital.

For TC the “why” question of why workers didn’t create communism is answered by the concept of programmatism. Programmatism basically means the “old workers movement” which was all about affirming the proletarian condition rather than abolishing it. This is meant to describe the entire workers movement of the past, not just its more reformist elements, describing all politics where “revolution is thus the affirmation of the proletariat, whether as a dictatorship of the proletariat, workers’ councils, the liberation of work, a period of transition, the withering of the state, generalised self-management, or a “society of associated producers”. Programmatism in this theory  is not a means towards communism, but a product of capitalism in the phase of ‘formal subsumption’ transitioning into the more advanced phase of ‘real subsumption’. This phase decomposed in the period of the 20’s to the 70’s, leading to today’s modern phase of ‘real subsumption’ where capitalism has fully dominated the proletariat. Programmatism created a ‘worker identity’ that allowed for the affirmation of the proletariat that is now no longer possible, and therefore there can only be the complete negation of the proletarian condition through its immediate self-abolition.

This argument, while more sophisticated than Dauve’s, essentially reduces the entire workers movement to a means of capitalist development and claims that all along communism was impossible until (conveniently) now. Yet why this era will produce communism when all class struggle in the past simply affirmed capital is never explained. Without the millenarian expectations of apocalyptic revolution TC’s theory simply would argue that communism is impossible. It also completely writes off the actual possibility of organizing politically and developing a real strategy to defeat capitalism, since any attempt to organize the proletariat to abolish itself would mean organizing it as a class within capitalism and therefore affirming it. As a result the only way forward will be spontaneous outbursts that develop to the point of some kind of “rupture with the wage relation”. TC and Dauve have very similar positions when it comes to their actual political conclusions, which is that revolution will not have a transition based on a dictatorship of the proletariat organized in parties and councils but see an immediate move towards communism, where value is abolished and free access to all goods is established. They just come to these conclusions from different theoretical reasonings. TC are ultra-determinist, almost to the point of being fatalist, while Dauve seems to suggest communism was possible all along if the workers made the right choices.

In this sense they theorize the conclusions of the anarchist Kropotkin, who imagined a revolution taking the form of local communities spontaneously establishing common access to all property and federating with each other as needed without any kind of transition where the proletariat would hold state power. Kropotkin came from a time where self-sufficient peasants were far more prominent as well as their spontaneous outbursts, making his politics a bit more believable and easier to sell. While Dauve and TC don’t spell out the localist implications of their theory, the idea that there must be immediate communization does strongly suggest that in a revolutionary situation isolated regions would attempt essentially autarkic communism rather than making any kind of compromises with the old order. Other adherents of Communization, like Jasper Bernes in his essay Logistics, Counterlogistics and the Communist Project do essentially spell this out. Bernes argues the complexity of the global division of labor means revolutionary zones would have to trade with other nations to operate capitalist means of production. Bernes writes off the idea of trade since this would entail temporarily holding onto aspects of capitalism, instead suggesting that revolutionaries won’t be able to operate most capitalist forces of production. How this strategy will be capable of feeding people in a crisis situation never seems to cross his mind. At least Communization theorist Bruno Astarian in his article Communization as a Way Out of the Crisis openly admits that people may have to starve for his schemes to work out:

“Finally, there is always the chance that the supply of flour for our bakers will be sporadic, at least at first, if the proletarians at the mill prefer to discuss the meaning of love or life instead of grinding wheat. Would this lead to chaos? We shall be told that today there will be no bread. You just have to accept it. Another alternative is that someone conceives a plan, quantified and taking time scales into account, and someone else complies with its terms. In such a case not only is value reestablished. In fact, a proletarian experience of this kind has no future: if it works the proletarians will rapidly lose their rights (restoration of wage labor in one form or another); if it does not work they will return to the old framework of unemployment and unpaid wages. It is likely, in any event, that the communizing solution will not be considered until various chess matches of this kind have tried and found wanting.”

What all of this ignores is that communism isn’t possible on a local scale, and that “true” communism where value has been completely abolished will require the co-operation of all of humanity utilizing the the worlds collective productive forces. This reason alone explains why immediate communization is not possible, with transition being a necessity imposed by objective circumstances rather than the will of revolutionaries. It also misses the basic Marxist insight that it is capitalism that creates the conditions for communism in the sense of creating a globalized society (with a global class, the proletariat) with forces of production that are developed enough to allow humanity to pursue a life beyond endless toil and starvation.

Immediate communization is also impossible because of the realities of specialization under capitalism, where a large and essentially petty-bourgeois strata of professionals with skillsets necessary for the reproduction of society (surgeons for example) are able to use their monopolies on skills and information to assert a privileged position above proletarians in society. This strata would have much reason to resist communism and withhold their skills at the expense of society to assert material privileges. As a result concessions would have to given to this strata until their skill monopolies can be broken through the collective reorganization of production and education in a way to challenge the very basis of the mental/manual division of labor. Such a process would not happen overnight, problematizing the notion that a immediate transcendence of capitalism is possible. In other words transition isn’t something revolutionaries choose but something imposed by objective conditions. Communism must be created from the raw material produced by capitalism, raw materials that aren’t as malleable as the ‘revolutionary will’ of communists would like them to be.

Some communization theorists go as far as to reject the notion that the proletariat is a ‘revolutionary subject’ at all, while offering only ambiguity as to what could replace it. While Dauve seems to maintain some notion of the proletariat as the revolutionary agent other writers like Woland from SIC write about a ‘revolutionary (non-)subject’ that takes from the form of the rioter. A common theme in modern communization theory is the riot as the main form of struggle in this period. According to the communization group Blaumachen we are currently living in the ‘Era of Riots’, where the absence of strikes and prominence of riots signals the replacement of proletarian affirmation with proletarian abolition. The rioter doesn’t affirm any kind of proletarian identity through forming class-based institutions, but instead directly acts to negate capitalist relations and the state. It is seen as a form of practice that cannot be recuperated, as though the content of the riot itself is the content of communism. While it is not clear who this new subject is, it is clear what it will do: riot. The Endnotes groups seems to suggest the basis for this new revolutionary subject lies in the existence of ‘surplus populations’, or those formally excluded from the wage relation.

There is nothing new about rejecting the proletariat as the revolutionary subject yet trying to maintain some kind of revolutionary anti-capitalist ideology. In early 20th century in intellectuals like Georges Sorel, Edouard Berth and Robert Michels responded to the popularity of reformist and electoral social-democratic parties as opposed to a more active and violent class struggle by questioning the notion of socialist revolution being based in the rational class interests of the proletariat. This circle of intellectuals, detailed in Sternhell’s The Birth of Fascist Ideology, developed out of the syndicalist movement and diverged from classical marxism in a variety of ways. Sorel would develop a cult of action based on the general strike as the myth that would drive the proletariat to rebel rather than any kind of objective class interest. Berth and Michels took it a step further and argued the working class was not a revolutionary agent at all, with working class organization no longer a necessity for socialism. This abandonment of class and embrace of vitalist voluntarism led many intellectuals in this circle to embrace the nation as the revolutionary subject, becoming ideological influences on fascism.

The New Left of the 1960’s and 70’s also saw similar ideas that aimed to abandon the proletariat, the most notable being Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man. While Sorel and Michels were responding to the rise of reformism Marcuse saw consumer society as the main factor integrating the working class into capitalism and pacifying it. Robbed of any dialectical opposition to capitalism by the lures of consumer society the proles were simply “one-dimensional men” with no antagonistic relation to the system. Yet for Marcuse there was still hope in the “great refusal” which would be led by third world resistance movements, student rebellions and a vague ‘oppressed’. What this looked like in practice was a fractured collection of identity and nationalist movements that were incapable of finding a commonality in the basis of class and instead became integrated into public-interest liberalism.

While the communization theorists who express doubt or even disdain for the potential of the proletariat to act as a revolutionary subject operate in a different context and with a different discourse from the Sorelians and Marcuse they are both generally informed by a sort of ‘worry about workers’. While the Sorelian lamented the rise of parliamentary reformism in favor of a more directly antagonistic syndicalist inspired by heroic myths, Marcuse was responding to the ‘post-war compromise’ where Keynesian policies were able to temporarily win a better deal for (sections of) workers under capitalist democracies. Today communization theorists are responding to the general tendencies of de-industrialization in the core economies, where a shift towards service and retail type labor in favor of manufacturing has largely made traditional labor organizing impotent. There indeed is no denying that in the US the typical proletarian is not a muscular factory worker who identifies with their labor and wants self-management but rather someone working in a call center or Mcdonalds under precarious conditions.

It is clear that the class composition and terrain of class struggle today is different from the past, and that a simple strategy of building labor parties out of trade unions won’t cut it. Yet pointing to the decline of unions and todays explosive riots to claim that ‘programmatism’ is now impossible seems like an overreaction to new conditions. Truth is that the shift towards de-industrialization, service economies and precariousness is a big blow to the traditional forms and tactics of organized labor. Yet the inherent antagonism between capital and labor and the need for workers to organize as a class within capital is there as much as ever. So while the need for class based organization on the economic front is still with us workers as a class have yet to learn how to struggle on this new class terrain. This won’t happen overnight, but will be a trial and error process that will require a break with the traditional union apparatus to open room for experimentation in tactics and strategy. It is arguable with the recent strikes in Spain of “pseudo self-employed” telecom workers that this process is happening before our eyes. We have to realize that the proletariat is not a class ready-made for revolution at any moment in history but rather must form as a class into a collective subject through creating its own institutions in society. The proletariat derives it’s social power not from the ability to shut down production but from its ability to organize as an entire class and pose an institutional alternative to the old society. This will mean reviving the ‘programmatism’ that TC claim is now permanently dead.

The “worry about workers” that haunts communization theorists is hardly a new phenomena. During any period of reaction or slow-down in the class struggle impatient revolutionaries will question the notion of a proletarian revolution and look elsewhere for revolutionary subjectivity if not completely giving up hope in marxist politics. This is not necessarily consistent among all adherents of communization however. As mentioned earlier, Gilles Dauves tends to maintain the notion of a proletarian subject while Endnotes has a more ambiguous position. Yet what all the proponents of communization do seem to have in common is a hostility to any of the ‘old forms’ of worker organization, such as parties, councils and unions. In fact there seems to be a hostility to the very notion that the proletariat can form mass organizations within capitalism that can be a basis for the overthrow of capitalism. The whole approach seems to hinge on a spontaneous rupture with the value-form that will create entirely novel forms in the process of struggle itself, with struggles themselves taking up communizing measures of out necessity. While there is legitimacy to the notion that new forms of class organization arise in struggles, this reliance on spontaneity offers little to conscious communists in terms of moving forward in formulating a coherent revolutionary strategy. Overall communization theorists are too quick to dismiss the “old forms” as completely obsolete due to new conditions. When it comes to pointing out these new conditions journals like Endnotes do have much of value to say, yet when it comes to explaining why exactly these changes make old forms fully obsolete the answers are very abstract and unconvincing.

In the end communization theory isn’t a progression or advancement in Marxism, but a repeat of past bad politics. In the same way that 1970’s Urban Guerilla groups like the Weather Underground repeated the arguments of Nardonik terrorists from Russia in the late 19th century, arguments regarding the transition period are mostly a return to the ideas of Kropotkin but phrased through citations of Marx’s Capital and Grundrisse. On the other hand the search for a ‘revolutionary (non-)subject’ that some communizers like Woland of SIC espouse is just repeat of pessimism about the working class from the Sorelian revisionists or the Marcuse inspired wing of the New Left.

Breaks from orthodoxy may not always be as innovative as they initially seem and simply open the door to confusing or dangerous ideas instead of a way to move forward. Communization theorists in many ways create a vision of revolution so idealistic and abstract that revolution basically becomes impossible. The vision of a millenarian rupture that immediately breaks with capitalism may be an appealing fantasy but in the end is simply a fantasy. The result of recent waves of spontaneous riots in Ukraine and Greece was Euromaidan and Syriza’s government respectively. Solving political questions and changing society requires positive programme and the organizational capacity to pose an alternative to the current regime. If it is indeed true that these are relics of the past (‘programmatism’) then communism is basically impossible.