To Work or Not to Work? Is that the Question? Discussion

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Joined: 21-03-05
Sep 29 2005 14:51
To Work or Not to Work? Is that the Question? Discussion

I was just re-reading this and i think its a pretty interesting piece. Good stuff to think about re: work.

Dauve goes on through a historical review of the problem of the relationship of workers and "workers organizations" towards work in various revolutions and major social movements (a mostly-European review, but I think his basic points hold anyway.)

He basically argues that the first moves of most workers in a revolutin is not to 'take control of production', but to stop working. Then again, Dauve makes the valuable point that 'work' as an activity separate from the whole of social life, as taking place in an economic sphere, in a separate workplace, etc. is pretty much peculiar to capital.

He also makes a side note, which I would like to see him develop, that councils largely corresponded to a particular phase of capital, but do not largely survive into the Taylorized, unskilled, mass production ("Fordist", for shorthand) world. I think this is an interesting point and one worth considering.

he then draws some conclusions, also interesting.

A few highlights I like:

"We’d be mistaken to think no-one cared about a theoretical critique of work before the 1960’s. In the 1840’s, Marx and others (Stirner for example) defined communism as the abolition of classes, of the State and of work. "

"One cannot envisage managing a labour process that has been fragmented inside the plant as between geographically separate production units. When a car or a toothbrush comprises components from two or three continents, no collective worker is able to regard it as his own. Totality is split. Work loses its unity. Workers are no longer unified by the content of tasks, nor by the globality of production. One can only wish to (self)manage what one masters.

Taylorized workers (like those in the US in the 1930s) did not form councils. The collective organ of struggle was not at the same time a potential collective management organ. The strike and occupation committee was only an aggregate instrument of solidarity, and provided the leadership of that specific movement: it was not a body that would represent or incarnate labour for other tasks (particularly the running of the firm). The Taylorized workplace leaves little room for managerial aspirations."

" Short as it is, our historical scan casts the shadow of a doubt on the thesis that the (undeniable) self-identification of the proletarian with a producer would be the decisive cause of our defeats. When did the workers really try to shoulder economic growth ? When did they rival with old time bourgeois owners or modern directors for the management of the companies ? In that matter at least, there’s no coincidence between political platforms and proletarian practices. Workers’ movements don’t boil down to an affirmation of labour. The attempts to resume production were often enough a makeshift solution, an effort to fill a gap caused by the absence or incompetence of the boss. In that case, occupying the premises and restarting the work process did not mean an affirmation of the workers as workers. It was a means of survival, as in other circumstances the buy-out of a bankrupt company by its personnel. At the end of 2001, when the Bruckman textile factory in Argentina was threatened with closure, the workers took over and kept it going, with no prospect of transforming capitalism into socialism, even within the limits of a single firm. Then this became the case of dozens of Argentinian companies. Such behaviour occurs when the proletarians think they have no chance of changing the world."

"Wage-labour is not a phenomenon imposed from outside, but the social relationship that structures our society: practical and collective adherence to work is built into the framework of that relationship."

" But, because of that very process, because the wage-earner sells his labour power, he lives inside capital, he makes capital as much as he is made by it, to a far higher degree than the peasant depended on his master and the craftsman on the merchant. Because he lives (and resists, and fights) inside capital, he produces and shares its essentials, including consumption and democracy. Because selling his life force is necessary to him, he can only despise and reject his work, in reality and in his mind, by rejecting what makes him exist as a wage-earner, i.e. by rejecting capital. In other words, if it’s got to be more than everyday resistance, refusal of work is only possible through an acute social crisis.'

"The ideology of labour power is the necessary ideology of the proletarian within capital. That commodity is the prime reality of billions of men and women. The proletarian is never reduced to what capital turns him into, yet he feels a need to be recognized and socially enhanced, and that need is based on his only asset: work. He has to have this positive image of himself, if only to be able to sell himself on good terms. In an interview, the job seeker will not devalue himself. If he did, he would submit to the common prejudice that debases the competence of a simple order-taker."

" Determinism revisits history to locate the obstacle to revolution, and discovers it in the form of the social space that the workers supposedly wished to occupy inside capitalism. Then that option is said to be closed now: such a social space does not exist any more because in fully real domination capitalism is everywhere. The reasons for past failures give the reasons for tomorrow’s success, and provide the inevitability of communist revolution, as the obstacle is cleared away by the completion of what is described as capital’s quasi natural life cycle.

In other words, the revolutionary crisis is no longer perceived as a breaking up and superseding of the social conditions that create it. It is only conceived of as the conclusion of a pre-ordained evolution.

The methological flaw is to believe in a privileged vantage point that enables the observer to grasp the totality (and the whole meaning) of past, present and near future human history.

In short, the causes of our previous shortcomings are not sought in the practical deeds of the proletarians. The dynamic element, the decisive one, is supposed to be the movement of capital. The mutual involvement of capital and labour is reduced to a one-way relation of cause and effect. History gets frozen.

We would prefer to say that there is no other limit to the life-span of capital than the conscious activity of the proletarians. Otherwise, no crisis, however deep it might be, will be enough to produce such a result. And any deep crisis (a crisis of the system, not just in it) could be the last if the proletarians took advantage of it. But there’ll never be a day of reckoning, a final un-mediated showdown, as if at long last the proletarians were directly facing capital and therefore attacking it.

« The self-emancipation of the proletariat is the breakdown of capitalism », as Pannekoek wrote in the last sentence of his essay on The Theory of the Breakdown of Capitalism (1934). It’s significant this should come as the conclusion of a discussion on capital’s cycles and reproduction models (Marx’s, Luxemburg’s and H.Grossmann’s). The communist movement cannot be understood through models similar to those of the reproduction of capital -- unless we regard communism as the last logical ( = as inevitable as any previous crisis) step in the course of capital. If this were the case, the communist revolution would be as « natural » as the growing up and ageing of living beings, the succession of seasons and the gravitation of planets, and just like them scientifically predictable.

1789 might have happened forty years later or sooner, without a Robespierre and a Bonaparte, but a bourgeois revolution was bound to happen in France in the XVIIIth or XIXth century.

Who could argue that communism is bound to happen ? The communist revolution is not the ultimate stage of capitalism."



888's picture
Joined: 30-09-03
Sep 30 2005 08:12

Yes but this is better argued (at least the beginning part) than when it's done Bob Black and other tossers - although I always suspected that other parts of the ultra left would follow Freddy Perlman up their own arseholes...

ANyway, if he's right we're all fucked. But I don't really understand what he's on about in the last part.

Joined: 16-07-05
Sep 30 2005 12:51

I'm a fan of Zanon/factory without bosses so disagree with:

At the end of 2001, when the Bruckman textile factory in Argentina was threatened with closure, the workers took over and kept it going, with no prospect of transforming capitalism into socialism, even within the limits of a single firm. Then this became the case of dozens of Argentinian companies.

Instead of "no prospect", I think they have hit on the best method of transforming capitalism into socialism. It's not communism though.

But I agree with the rejection of determinism. Also like him pointing out that the imagined reduction in importance of industrial workers is a myth:

These facts [the small number of industrial workers] do not change anything in the validity or vanity of a communist perspective: their only merit is precisely to show that nothing fundamental has changed since the XIXth century. According to Marx’s own figures in Capital’s volume I, there were more servants than industrial workers in mid-Victorian England. Should the theory of the proletariat be wrong, it was already so in 1867, and it isn’t wrong in 2002 because there aren’t enough workers left.
Joined: 21-03-05
Sep 30 2005 14:21
revol68 wrote:
the anti work thesis as put forward by so many arseholes claiming to have broke with leftism is at best a crude rehashing of ideas always present (thou not always explicit) in anarchism/communism. At worst it is a dishonest attempt to paint communism as a project to give everyone a place on the production line.

To work or not to work is a banal question, put forward by gobshites who couldn't see past the end of their street, nevermind begin to contemplate the a society that negates the dead wieght of "work" and the hollow husk of "leisure".

Any further questions can be directed to the appropriate bodies come a revolutionary situation, anything else is the noxious gas of constipated stools.

Ok Revol, whats your point? Are you claiming that Dauve is just another "refusal of work" 'gobshite' or are you agreeing with him? Or something else altogether? Please clarify.

Dauve's key thesis, his key for posing the question this way is on the first page:

" The refusal of work has become the underlying theme of many a theory on past and present struggles. Defeats are explained by the acceptance of work, partial successes by active shopfloor insubordination, and a revolution to come is equated with a complete rejection of work. According to this analysis, in the past, workers shared the cult of production. Now they can free themselves of the delusion of work, because capitalism is depriving it of interest or human content, while making hundreds of millions of people jobless...

We’re only dealing with one important point they have in common: the belief that asserting the importance of labour was a major obstacle to revolution, and that this obstacle would be removed more by capitalist development than by the proletarians themselves. It seems to us that these views are not borne out by historical facts, and (more important) that their starting point, their « method », is debatable."

He then poses that the idealization of labor, of a 'cult of productionism', is not a product of workers' revolutionary activity, but is a big part of the ideologies that claim to represent the working class and that the parties and unions putting forward those ideologies have been the ones to impose or re-impose capitalist work, who hold communism to be a 'utopia of workers' (Lenin is obvious in this, but Dauve provides a number of examples including some stuff that reflect as much as anything debates in the ultra-Left over the last 40 years.)

Dauve then tries to address why revolutionaries continue to espouse such ideas, and the fallacies of the people who glorify the current decline of 'working class identity'. Revolution is not about an objective development, the objective crisis of capital breaking down or a shift from an ascendant to a decadent phase. Communism has to be the realization of workers' struggles and contrary to those who wish to ban the problem of consciousness, if the working class as proletariat does not become conscious of what must be done, then communism will only always be existing in the mode of being denied.

If so far the working class has correctly posed the negation of work, no revolution has yet posed its second negation or its positive overcoming. In so far as Dauve is addressing communists, his point is that we need to change our approach to recognize that 'to work or not to work?' is basically not the question.

He then finishes with a pithy discussion of exactly how work is less imposed now than simply 'is', unquestionably, and this is an important point for what makes today different from 1968.

Is all of this terribly new? Well, it has been around, in fragment or implicitly, for a while, but this is one of the more coherent discussions and therefore valuable.


Joined: 21-03-05
Sep 30 2005 14:30
888 wrote:
Yes but this is better argued (at least the beginning part) than when it's done Bob Black and other tossers - although I always suspected that other parts of the ultra left would follow Freddy Perlman up their own arseholes...

ANyway, if he's right we're all fucked. But I don't really understand what he's on about in the last part.

Well, that's the key part. He's not taking a side in the "To work or not to work" debate of the Left, he is arguing that it is the wrong way to pose the problem, and that today as the ideology of work has faded, the objective, necessary, inveitable, unquestionable aspect of work has in fact deepened and been naturalized. The rejection of 'proletarian identity' has been effected by capital, and much to the detriment of the working class.

And more...

And if he is right, we are not fucked, but we need to be attentive to what is really happening today, and not hope that there are answers in the ideas and activities of 1917, 1936 or 1968. And we need to not imagine that revolution and the formation of the class into a revolutionary force is automatic. The tendency of too many Left theorists is to assume a periodization that will explain as with an iron law why the working class failed before and why it has to win now, from the Autonomists and Negri to the SI to Theorie Communiste, much less the Leninists of various stripes.


Joined: 21-03-05
Oct 3 2005 15:13
revol68 wrote:
shit that wasn't meant to be a go at Duave. His shit rocks!

I was just drunk and started raging about bob black and all those primmo/crimethinc fucks in my head.

It actually bears little relation to your cut n paste from Duave and is much more to do with the thread question. To work or not to work?

Heh, yeah i totally couldn't tell where you were going or even what your intent was. See, now if I was swearing, you'd think i was being a prick...


osobo's picture
Joined: 5-04-08
Jul 6 2009 18:38

I’ve made a Russian translation of this article recently and received some quite ridiculous comments about how workers pride is necessary for revolution and that work would still exist in communist society (the article generally is not about it though). So, maybe Dauve's thoughts are a little mmm Eurocentric? I mean, yes, in the West, work is already murdered by taylorism, but what about other world? Though in my case, I tend to think that it's a problem of underdevelopment of the lib-com milieu, but could we argue with confidence that e.g. in Nigeria, workers identity has no prospect?

Joined: 6-01-07
Mar 28 2011 14:30

'Sort it out frosty' mentioned this pamphlet again on another thread so I had another look at it.

I find Dauves arguments against the determinism of say 'Theorie Communiste' convincing enough and also his brief historical recounting of the 'refusal of work' as a continueing thread in the real workers movement as opposed to the ideology of certain political representations of workers in social democracy and anarcho-syndicalism.

But his suggestion that the 'idea' of communism ' the abolition of wage labour, classes, the state and work.' being present in 1845 as any kind of proof that communism as a practical movement was anything other than 'immature' at that time less convincing. Indeed that it was immature goes some way to explaining Marx's (and many other pro-revolutionaries) apparent 'reformist' political activity. This is mentioned by John Crump in his short Solidarity/Social Revolution pamphlet 'A Contribution to the Critique of Marx' although John then fails to consider the subsequent changes in capitalism, brought about, in part at least, by the real movement of workers that might have changed the dilema which he says Marx faced at that time.

This leads to my second connected concern that Dauve, in his understandable desire to reject 'the refusal of work' as some kind of modern day 'philosophers stone' explaining everything, errs too far in rejecting the significance of the changes in the structure of capitalism and the significance for us today in the shift from the formal to the real subsumption of labour on a global scale. This of course does not make the revolutionary destruction of capitalism and the emmergence of communism in any way inevitable, but it does, in my opinion, pose the question of communism as both a practical possibillity and a dire necessity, that is 'Communism or Barbarism' far more starkly now then ever before.

If anyone thinks I am misunderstanding Dauve here then let me know.

Joined: 28-07-11
Feb 28 2013 08:21

The capitalist production process is a key point for the emancipation of work only in a negative respect. It does not lead to socialism by its own further development and immanent laws; not through the workers’ struggle in their role as producers can it be transformed decisively in favor of labor, but only if the workers stop playing their role as capitalist producers. Whatever any man, even the worker, does within the structure of capitalism, everything draws him only deeper and deeper into capitalist entanglement. In this role the workers too are participants in capitalism, though their interests are not self-selected but are indoctrinated into them by the capitalists and though in every essential they reap not the advantages but the disadvantages of the injustice into which they are placed. Liberation is possible only for those who can step out of capitalism mentally and physically, who cease playing a role in it and begin to be men. One begins to be a man by no longer working for the non-genuine, profit and its market, and by restoring the submerged true relation between need and work, between hunger and the hands. What must be done is to draw the right conclusion from the basic socialist insight: only work creates values, and that conclusion is: away from the interest market! The work market and its spirit, the relationship between work and consumption and the reason for work, still has to be established.

Angelus Novus
Joined: 27-07-06
Feb 28 2013 12:47

Gah, what a bunch of tedious wank. What's Dauve's point, that we're condemned to universal alienation because we don't make our own toothbrushes? What's the solution, a return to small-scale artisanal production, or even primitivism?

Honestly, if under communism I have to clock in 2 hours a day at the communist toothbrush factory, I don't think I'd feel terrible about the fact that I'm not able to claim the toothbrush as "mine."

Dauve completely misses the point about what sucks about capitalism. It has nothing to do with the fact that my toothbrush is a fragmented totality.

RedEd's picture
Joined: 27-11-10
Feb 28 2013 22:07

Dauve isn't talking about the problem with capitalism in that passage. He's describing how the organisation of labour that gave rise to particular conceptions of worker's self management (e.g. classical anarcho-syndicalism, early council communism) no longer exist. That toothbrush paragraph is worth reading in its proper context, otherwise it does indeed look like a pile of wank.