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. 

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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.

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