The invaluable merit of the German Left and a myriad of ultra-leftist grouplets has been to hammer in the primacy of workers' spontaneity. The potentialities of communism lie in proletarian experience and nowhere else. The ultra-left therefore consistently appealed to the essence of the proletariat against its numerous mistaken forms of existence. From the 20s down to the 70s, it stood against all mediations, whether State, party or union, including splinter groups and anarchist unions. If Lenin can be summed up in one word: "party", a single phrase defines the ultra-left: the workers themselves... Fine, but the question remains: which workers' "self" is meant?
This issue must be faced, all the more so since council communism, through the Situationist International, has been quite influential.
The French version of this text originated from a group with ultra-left roots, but which came to question them. A first draft was submitted to a convention organized by the ICO (Informations Correspondance Ouvrieres), held near Paris, June 1969. 1 The enlarged English version was meant to start a discussion with Paul Mattick.
* * *
What is the ultra-left? It is both the product and one of the aspects of the revolutionary movement which followed the first world war and shook capitalist Europe without destroying it from 1917 to 1921 or 1923. Ultra-left ideas are rooted in that movement of the twenties, which was the expression of hundreds of thousands of revolutionary workers in Europe. That movement remained a minority in the Communist International and opposed the general line of the international communist movement. The term suggests the character of the ultra-left. There is the right (the social-patriots, Noske...), the centre (Kautsky...), the left (Lenin and the Communist International), and the ultra-left. The ultra-left is primarily an opposition: an opposition within and against the German Communist Party (K.P.D.), within and against the Communist International. It asserts itself through a critique of the prevailing ideas of the communist movement, i.e., through a critique of Leninism.
The ultra-left was far from being a monolithic movement. Furthermore, its various components modified their conceptions. For instance, [Herman] Gorter's open letter to Lenin expresses a theory of the party which the ultra-left no longer accepts. On the two main points ("organization" and the content of socialism) we shall only study the ideas which the ultra-left has retained throughout its development. The French group I.C.O. is one of the best examples of a present-day ultra-left group.
A) The Problem of Organization
Ultra-left ideas are the product of a practical experience (mainly the workers' struggles in Germany) and of a theoretical critique (the critique of Leninism). For Lenin, the main revolutionary problem was to forge a "leadership" capable of leading the workers to victory. When ultra-leftists tried to give a theoretical explanation of the rise of factory organizations in Germany, they said the working class does not need a party in order to be revolutionary. Revolution would be made by the masses organized in workers' councils and not by a proletariat "led" by professional revolutionaries. The German Communist Workers' Party (K.A.P.D.), whose activity is expressed theoretically by Gorter in his "Reply to Lenin", regarded itself as a vanguard whose task was to enlighten the masses, not to lead them, as in Leninist theory. This conception was rejected by many ultra-leftists, who opposed the dual existence of the factory organizations and the party: revolutionaries must not try to organize themselves in a body distinct from the masses. That discussion led to the creation, in 1920, of the A.A.U.D.-E. (General Union of German Workers-Unitary Organization), which reproached the A.A.U.D. (General Labour Union of Germany) with being controlled by the K.A.P.D. (German Communist Workers' Party). The majority of the ultra-left movement adopted the same view as the A.A.U.D.-E. In France, I.C.O.'s present activity is based on the same principle: any revolutionary organization coexisting with the organs created by the workers themselves, and trying to elaborate a coherent theory and political line, must in the end attempt to lead the workers. Therefore revolutionaries do not organize themselves outside the organs "spontaneously" created by the workers: they merely exchange and circulate information and establish contacts with other revolutionaries; they never try to define a general theory or strategy.
To understand this conception, we must go back to Leninism. The Leninist theory of the party is based on a distinction which can be found in all the great socialist thinkers of the period: "labour movement" and "socialism" (revolutionary ideas, the doctrine, Scientific Socialism, Marxism, etc. - it can be given many different names) are two things which are fundamentally different and separate. There are workers and their daily struggles on the one hand, and there are the revolutionaries on the other. Lenin proceeds to state that revolutionary ideas must be "introduced" into the working class. The labour movement and the revolutionary movement are severed from each other: they must be united through the leadership of the revolutionaries over the workers. Therefore revolutionaries must be organized and must act on the working class "from the outside." Lenin's analysis, situating the revolutionaries outside the labour movement, seems to be based on fact: it appears that revolutionaries live in a totally different world from that of workers. Yet Lenin does not see that this is an illusion. Marx's analysis and his scientific socialism as a whole are not the product of "bourgeois intellectuals", but of the class struggle on all its levels under capitalism. "Socialism" is the expression of the struggle of the proletariat. It was elaborated by "bourgeois intellectuals" (and by highly educated workers: J. Dietzgen) because only revolutionaries coming from the bourgeoisie were able to elaborate it, but it was the product of the class struggle.
The revolutionary movement, the dynamic that lea ds toward communism, is a result of capitalism. Let us examine Marx's conception of the party. The word, party, appears frequently in Marx's writings. We must make a distinction between Marx's principles on this question and his analyses of many aspects of the labour movement of his time. Many of those analyses were wrong (for example his view of the future of trade unionism). Moreover we cannot find a text where Marx summed up his ideas on the party, but only a number of scattered remarks and comments. Yet we believe that a general point of view emerges from all these texts. Capitalist society itself produces a communist party, which is nothing more than the organization of the objective movement (this implies that Kautsky's and Lenin's conception of a "socialist consciousness" which must be "brought" to the workers is meaningless) that pushes society toward communism. Lenin saw a reformist proletariat and said that something had to be done ("socialist consciousness" had to be introduced) in order to turn it into a revolutionary proletariat. Thus Lenin showed that he totally misunderstood class struggle. In a non-revolutionary period the proletariat cannot change capitalist production relations. It therefore tries to change capitalist distribution relations through its demand for higher wages. Of course the workers do not "know" that they are changing the distribution relations when they ask for higher wages. Yet they do try, "unconsciously", to act upon the capitalist system. Kautsky and Lenin do not see the process, the revolutionary movement created by capitalism; they only see one of its aspects. Kautsky's and Lenin's theory of class consciousness breaks up a process and considers only one of its transitory moments: for them the proletariat "by its own resources alone" can only be reformist, whereas the revolutionaries stand outside of the labour movement. In actual fact the revolutionaries and their ideas and theories originate in the workers' struggles.
In a non-revolutionary period, revolutionary workers, isolated in their factories, do their best to expose the real nature of capitalism and the institutions which support it (unions, "workers'" parties). They usually do this with little success, which is quite normal. And there are revolutionaries (workers and non-workers) who read and write, who do their best to provide a critique of the whole system. They usually do this with little success, which is also quite normal. This division is produced by capitalism: one of the characteristics of capitalist society is the division between manual and intellectual work. This division exists in all the spheres of our society; it also exists in the revolutionary movement. It would be idealistic to expect the revolutionary movement to be "pure," as if it were not a product of our society. Inevitably the revolutionary movement under capitalism, that is communism, bears the stigma of capitalism.
Only the complete success of revolution can destroy this division. Until then we must fight against it; it characterizes our movement as much as it characterizes the rest of our society. It is inevitable that numerous revolutionaries are not greatly inclined to reading and are not interested in theory. This is a fact, a transitory fact. But "revolutionary workers" and "revolutionary theoreticians" are two aspects of the same process. It is wrong to say that the "theoreticians" must lead the "workers". But it is equally wrong to say, as I.C.O. says, that collectively organized theory is dangerous because it will result in leadership over the workers. I.C.O. merely takes a position symmetrical to Lenin's. The revolutionary process is an organic process, and although its components may be separate from each other for a certain time, the emergence of any revolutionary (or even pseudo-revolutionary) situation shows the profound unity of the various elements of the revolutionary movement
What happened in May, 1968, in the worker-student action committees at the Censier centre in Paris? Some (ultra-left) communists, who before these events had devoted most of their revolutionary activity to theory, worked with a minority of revolutionary workers. Before May, 1968 (and since then), they were no more separate from the workers than every worker is separate from other workers in a "normal", non-revolutionary situation in capitalist society. Marx was not separate from the workers when he was writing Capital, nor when he was working in the Communist League or the International. When he worked in these organizations he felt neither the need (as Lenin), nor the fear (as I.C.O.), to become the leader of the workers.
Marx's conception of the party as a historical product of capitalist society taking different forms according to the stage and the evolution of that society enables us to go beyond the dilemma: need of the party/fear of the party. The communist party is the spontaneous (i.e., totally determined by social evolution) organization of the revolutionary movement created by capitalism. The party is a spontaneous offspring, born on the historical soil of modern society. Both the will and the fear to "create" the party are illusions. It does not need to be created or not created: it is a mere historical product. Therefore revolutionaries have no need either to build it or fear to build it.
Lenin had a theory of the party. Marx had another theory of the party, which was quite different from Lenin's. Lenin's theory was an element in the defeat of the Russian revolution. The ultra-left rejected all theories of the party as dangerous and counter-revolutionary. Yet Lenin's theory was not at the root of the defeat of the Russian revolution. Lenin's theory only prevailed because the Russian revolution failed (mainly because of the absence of revolution in the West). One must not discard all theories of the party because one of them (Lenin's) was a counter-revolutionary instrument. Unfortunately, the ultra-left merely adopted a conception which is the exact opposite of Lenin's. Lenin had wanted to build a party; the ultra-left refused to build one. The ultra-left thus gave a different answer to the same wrong question: for or against the construction of the party. The ultra-left remained on the same ground as Lenin. We, on the contrary, do not want merely to reverse Lenin's view; we want to abandon it altogether.
Modern Leninist groups (Trotskyist groups, for instance) try to organize the workers. Modern ultra-left groups (I.C.O., for instance) only circulate information without trying to adopt a collective position on a problem. As opposed to this, we believe it necessary to formulate a theoretical critique of present society. Such a critique implies collective work. We also think that any permanent group of revolutionary workers must try to find a theoretical basis for its action. Theoretical clarification is an element of, and a necessary condition for, practical unification.
B) Managing What?
The Russian revolution died because it ended up developing capitalism in Russia. To create an efficient body of managers became its motto. The ultra-left quickly concluded that bureaucratic management could not be socialism and they advocated workers' management. A coherent ultra-left theory was created, with workers' councils at its centre: the councils act as the fighting organs of the workers under capitalism and as the instruments of workers' management under socialism. Thus the councils play the same central role in the ultra-left theory as the party in the Leninist theory.
The theory of workers' management analyses capitalism in terms of its management. But is capitalism first of all a mode of management? The revolutionary analysis of capitalism started by Marx does not lay the stress on the question: who manages capital? On the contrary: Marx describes both capitalists and workers as mere functions of capital: "the capitalist as such is only a function of capital, the labourer a function of labour power." The Russian leaders do not "lead" the economy; they are led by it, and the entire development of the Russian economy obeys the objective laws of capitalist accumulation. In other words, the manager is at the service of definite and compelling production relations. Capitalism is not a mode of MANAGEMENT but a mode of PRODUCTION based on given PRODUCTION RELATIONS. Revolution must aim at these relations; we will try to analyse them briefly. The revolutionary analysis of capitalism emphasises the role of capital, whose objective laws are obeyed by the "managers" of the economy, both in Russia and in America.
C) The Law of Value
Capitalism is based on exchange: it first presents itself as "an immense accumulation of commodities." But though it could not exist without exchange, capitalism is not merely the production of commodities; it grows and develops even by fighting against simple commodity production. Capital is fundamentally based on a particular type of exchange, the exchange between living labour and stored labour. The difference between Marx and the classical economists lies primarily in his creation of the concept of labour power: this concept reveals the secret of surplus-value, since it differentiates between necessary-labour and surplus labour.
How do commodities confront each other? By what mechanism can one determine that x quantity of A has the same value as y quantity of B? Marx does not try to find the explanation for xA = yB in the concrete nature of A and B, in their respective qualities, but in a quantitative relation: A and B can only be exchanged in the proportion xA = yB because they both contain a quantity of "something common" to both of them. If we abstract the concrete and useful nature of A and B, they retain only one thing in common: they are both "products of labour". A and B are exchanged in proportions determined by the respective quantities of labour crystallized in them. The quantities of labour are measured by their duration. The concept of socially necessary labour time, developed by further analysis, is an abstraction: one cannot calculate what an hour of socially necessary labour represents in a given society. But the distinction between abstract and concrete labour allows Marx to understand the mechanism of exchange and to analyse a particular form of exchange: the wage system.
The best points in my book are: 1) the two-fold character of labour, according to whether it is expressed in use value or exchange value. (All understanding of the facts depends upon this.) It is emphasized immediately, in the first chapter... 2
Labour time, in fact, determines the entire social organization of production and distribution. It regulates the proportions in which the productive forces are used for specific purposes at specific places. The law of value "asserts itself as it determines the necessary proportions of social labour, not in the general sense which applies to all societies, but only in the sense required by capitalist society; in other words, it establishes a proportional distribution of the whole social labour according to the specific needs of capitalist production." 3
This is one of the reasons why capital will not be invested in a factory in India 4 even though the production of that factory may be necessary to the survival of the population. Capital always goes where it can multiply quickly. The regulation by labour time compels capitalist society to develop a given production only where the labour time socially necessary for this production is at most equal to the average labour time.
Such is the logic of capital: exchange-value determined by average labour time.
D) The Contradiction of Labour Time
We mentioned the central role played by surplus labour in the production of surplus value. Marx emphasised the origin, the function and the limit of surplus labour.
...Only when a certain degree of productivity has already been reached- so that a part of production time is sufficient for immediate production- can an increasingly large part be applied to the production of the means of production. This requires that society be able to wait; that a large part of the wealth already created can be withdrawn both from immediate consumption and from production for immediate consumption, in order to employ this part for labour which is not immediately productive (within the material production process itself)". 5
Wage labour is the means for developing the productive forces.
Real economy - saving - consists of the saving of labour time (minimum (and minimization) of production costs); but this saving [is] identical with development of the productive force.6
Wage labour makes possible the production of surplus value through the appropriation of surplus labour by capital. In that sense the miserable condition which is the lot of the worker is a historical necessity. The worker must be compelled to furnish surplus labour. This is how the productive forces develop and increase the share of surplus labour in the working day:
Capital creates "a large quantity of disposable time. . . (i.e. room for the development of the individual's full productive forces, hence those of society also)". 7
The contradictory or "antithetical existence" 8of surplus labour is quite clear:
- it creates the "wealth of nations",
- it brings nothing but misery to the workers who furnish it.
Capital "is thus, despite itself, instrumental in creating the means of social disposable time, in order to reduce labour time for the whole society to a diminishing minimum, and thus to free everyone's time for their own development." 9
In communism, the excess of time in relation to necessary labour time will lose the character of surplus labour which the historical limits of the productive forces had bestowed on it under capitalism. Disposable time will cease to be based on the poverty of labour. There will be no need to use misery to create wealth. When the relation between necessary labour and surplus labour is overthrown by the rise of the productive forces, the excess of time beyond labour needed for material existence will lose its transitory form of surplus labour.
Free time - which is both idle time and time for higher activity - has naturally transformed its possessor into a different subject, and he then enters into the direct production process as this different subject.10
The economy of labour time is an absolute necessity for the development of mankind. It lays the foundation for the possibility of capitalism and, at a higher stage, of communism. The same movement develops capitalism and makes communism both necessary and possible.
The law of value and measurement by average labour time are involved in the same process. The law of value expresses the limit of capitalism and plays a necessary part. As long as the productive forces are not yet highly developed and immediate labour remains the essential factor of production, measurement by average labour time is an absolute necessity. But with the development of capital, especially of fixed capital, "the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labour time and on the amount of labour employed than on the power of the agencies set in motion during labour time, whose 'powerful effectiveness' is itself in turn out of all proportion to the direct labour time spent on their production, but depends rather on the general state of science and on the progress of technology, or the application of this science to production." 11
The misery of the proletariat has been the condition for a considerable growth of fixed capital, in which all the scientific and technical knowledge of mankind is "fixed". Automation, the effects of which we are now beginning to see, is but one stage in this development. Yet capital continues to regulate production through the measurement of average labour time.
Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth. Hence it diminishes labour time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form.12
The well known contradiction productive forces/production relations cannot be understood if one does not see the link between the following oppositions:
a) contradiction between the function of average labour time as a regulator of "under-developed" productive forces, and the growth of productive forces which tends to destroy the necessity of such a function.
b) contradiction between the necessity of developing to a maximum the surplus labour of the worker in order to produce as much surplus value as possible, and the very growth of surplus labour which makes its suppression possible.
As soon as labour in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labour time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and hence exchange value [must cease to be the measure] of use value. The surplus labour of the mass has ceased to be the condition for the development of general wealth, just as the non-labour of the few, for the development of the general powers of the human head.13
"Human liberation", prophesied by all utopian thinkers (past and present), is then possible:
With that, production based on exchange value breaks down. . . The free development of individualities, and hence not the reduction of necessary labour time so as to posit surplus labour, but rather the general reduction of the necessary labour of society to a minimum, which then corresponds to the artistic, scientific etc. development of the individuals in the time set free, and with the means created, for all of them.14
Every child knows that a nation which ceased to work, I will not say for a year, but even for a few weeks, would perish. Every child knows, too, that the masses of products corresponding to the different needs require different and quantitatively determined masses of the total labour of society. That this necessity of the distribution of social labour in definite proportions cannot possibly be done away with by a particular form of social production but can only change the mode of its appearance, is self evident. No natural laws can be done away with. What can change in historically different circumstances is only the form in which these laws assert themselves. 15
Marx opposes regulation by socially necessary labour time to regulation by available time. Of course these are not two methods which could be used or rejected, but two historical objective processes involving all social relations. Many people know the pages from the Critique of the Gotha Programme where Marx explains that "within the co-operative society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products; just as little does the labour employed on the products appear here as the value of these products, as a material quality possessed by them, since now, in contrast to capitalist society, individual labour no longer exists in an indirect fashion but directly as a component part of the total labour". 16
"To everybody according to his needs", in Marx's view, does not mean that "everything" will exist "in abundance"; the notion of absolute "abundance" is historically irrelevant. There will have to be some sort of calculation and choice, not on the basis of exchange value, but on the basis of use value, of the social utility of the considered product. (Thereby the problem of "undeveloped countries" will be seen and treated in a new way.) Marx was quite clear about this in The Poverty of Philosophy:
In a future society, in which class antagonism will have ceased, in which there will no longer be any classes, use will no longer be determined by the minimum time of production; but the time of production devoted to different articles will be determined by the degree of their social utility. 17
Thus the text on the passage from the "realm of necessity" to the "realm of freedom" 18 is elucidated. Freedom is regarded as a relation where man, mastering the process of production of material life, will at last be able to adapt his aspirations to the level reached by the development of the productive forces. 19 The growth of social wealth and the development of every individuality coincide.
"For real wealth is the developed productive power of all individuals. The measure of wealth is then not any longer, in any way, labour time, but rather disposable time". 20 Thus Marx is quite right to describe time as the dimension of human liberation.
Furthermore, it is clear that the dynamics analysed by Marx excludes the hypothesis of any gradual way to communism through the progressive destruction of the law of value. On the contrary, the law of value keeps asserting itself violently until the overthrow of capitalism: the law of value never ceases destroying itself - only to reappear at a higher level. We have seen that the movement which gave birth to it tends to destroy its necessity. But it never ceases to exist and to regulate the functioning of the system. A revolution is therefore necessary.
The theory of the management of society through workers' councils does not take the dynamics of capitalism into account. It retains all the categories and characteristics of capitalism: wage-labour, law of value, exchange. The sort of socialism it proposes is nothing other than capitalism - democratically managed by the workers. If this were put into practice there would be two possibilities: either the workers' councils would try not to function as in capitalist enterprises, which would be impossible since capitalist production relations would still exist. In this case the workers' councils would be destroyed by counter-revolution. Production relations are not man-to-man relations, but the combination of the various elements of the process of labour. The "human" relation leaders/led is only a secondary form of the fundamental relation between wage-labour and capital. Or the workers' councils would consent to functioning as capitalist enterprises. In this case the system of councils would not survive; it would become an illusion, one of the numerous forms of association between Capital and Labour. "Elected" managers would soon become identical to traditional capitalists: the function of capitalist, says Marx, tends to separate from the function of worker. Workers' management would result in capitalism; in other words, capitalism would not have been destroyed.
The Bolshevik bureaucracy took the economy under its control. The ultra-left wants the masses to do this. The ultra-left remains on the same ground as Leninism: it once again gives a different answer to the same question (the management of the economy). We want to replace that question with a different one (the destruction of that economy, which is capitalist). Socialism is not the management, however "democratic" it may be, of capital, but its complete destruction.
E) The Historical Limit of the Ultra-Left
Our examination of the problem of "organization" and of the content of socialism has led us to affirm the existence of a revolutionary dynamic under capitalism. Produced by capitalism, the revolutionary movement assumes new forms in a new situation. Socialism is not merely the management of society by the workers, but the termination of the historical cycle of capital by the proletariat. The proletariat does not only seize the world; it also concludes the movement of capitalism and exchange. This is what distinguishes Marx from all utopian and reformist thinkers; socialism is produced by the objective dynamics which created capital and spread it all over the planet. Marx insists on the content of the movement. Lenin and the ultra-left insisted on its forms: form of organization, form of management of society, while they forgot the content of the revolutionary movement. This, too, was a historical product. The situation of the period prevented revolutionary struggles from having a communist content.
Leninism expressed the impossibility of revolution in his time. Councilism expressed its necessity, but without seeing exactly where its possibility lies. Marx's ideas on the party were abandoned. It was the time of the large reformist organizations, then of the communist parties (which quickly or immediately sank into another form of reformism). The revolutionary movement was not strong enough. Everywhere, in Germany, in Italy, in France, in Great Britain, the beginning of the twenties was marked by the control of the masses by "workers'" leaders. Reacting against this situation, ultra-leftists were driven to the point where they feared to become the new bureaucrats. Instead of understanding the Leninist parties as a product of proletarian defeat, they refused any party, and like Lenin let the Marxist conception of the party remain in oblivion. As for the content of socialism, all social movements, except in Spain for a short time, tried to administer capitalism and not to overthrow it. In such conditions the ultra-left could not make a profound critique of Leninism. They could only take the opposite view, and oppose other forms to Leninism, without seeing the content of revolution. This was all the more natural as that content did not clearly appear. (We must nevertheless remember that the ultra-left provided a remarkable critique of some aspects of capitalism - unionism and "workers'" parties).
These are the reasons why the ultra-left movement only replaced the Leninist fetishism of the party and class-consciousness with the fetishism of workers' councils. The critique of both Leninism and ultra-leftism is now possible because the development of capitalism gives us an idea of the real content of the revolutionary movement.
By holding on to the ultra-left ideas we presented (fear of creating the party, and workers' management), we would turn them into mere ideology. When these ideas first appeared around 1920, they expressed a real revolutionary struggle, and even their "mistakes" played a positive and progressive role in the struggles against social democracy and Leninism. Their limits were the expression of the activity of thousands of revolutionary workers. But things have changed a great deal since 1920. A new revolutionary workers' minority is in a slow process of formation, as was revealed by the 1968 events in France, and by other struggles in several countries.
In a revolutionary period, the revolutionary fights alongside the proletarian without any theoretical or sociological problem. The revolutionary movement gets unified. Theoretical coherence is a permanent objective of the revolutionaries, as it always hastens the practical co-ordination of revolutionary efforts. Revolutionaries never hesitate to act collectively in order to propagate their critique of the existing society.
They do not try to tell the workers what to do; but they do not refrain from intervening under the pretext that "the workers must decide for themselves". For, on the one hand, the workers only decide to do what the general situation compels them to do; and on the other, the revolutionary movement is an organic structure of which theory is an inseparable and indispensable element. Communists represent and defend the general interests of the movement. In all situations, they do not hesitate to express the whole meaning of what is going on, and to make practical proposals. If the expression is right and the proposal appropriate, they are parts of the struggle of the proletariat and contribute to build the "party" of the communist revolution.