The myth of working class passivity - Radical Chains

The myth of working class passivity - Radical Chains

There is an unbridgeable gap between the project outlined in Lenin's What is to be Done? and the principle of proletarian self-emancipation. We must return to Marx. More importantly we must return to the developing political economy of the working class. Crucially, we must examine the conditions which are the outcome of working class struggle but against which the working class is forced to struggle again ... From Radical Chains no.2.

radical chains

In the enchanted world of capital the emancipation of the working class can only be won by the working class itself. To say this, however, is to make assumptions and raise questions about the relations between consciousness and ideology, theory and practice, class and party, and about the nature of the transition to communism itself. These questions have often been approached through the theory of fetishism and, at its most extreme, this theory has been appropriated in such a way as to be posited as an absolute barrier to consciousness and so, by implication, to self-emancipation. This form of its appropriation is however erroneous. There is, in fact, no inconsistency between the theory of fetishism and the principles of proletarian self-emancipation.

To show this, however, it is first necessary to outline the nature of the assumptions underlying the notion that fetishism is an absolute barrier to consciousness. These assumptions, it will be argued, involve the abstraction of consciousness from the rest of social reality and more fundamentally, the assumption of working class passivity. This is followed by a close reading of Marx which attempts to specify the wider context of which the theory of fetishism is a part. This matrix, it is argued, includes not just the law of value but the embryonic law of planning and the self-formation of the working class through the conscious determination of needs. Finally, it is necessary to look at the events since the death of Marx which appear to contradict this analysis. By locating these phenomena within the political economy of the prevention of communism (Binns & Dixon, Radical Chains 1:1) it is possible to avoid the conclusion of working class passivity in the face of bourgeois ideology.

It should be stressed that what follows is not offered as a definitive answer to these questions. For one thing, it fails to take up the phenomenon of credit and inflation discussed by Lipietz for . example (see his The Enchanted World: Inflation Credit and World Crisis, Verso 1985). For another, although the analysis outlined here has implications for questions of organisation these are not drawn out. Finally, little is said about the evolution of Marx's own thought on the subject. It is hoped that these issues will be taken up at a later date.

The core of the theory of fetishism - to give an initial characterisation - is that under capitalism social labour cannot appear as social labour but only in the form of the exchange of objects as equivalents. This has implications for the nature of bourgeois ideology. Contemporary discussions of fetishism tend to draw out these implications. The focus is on two interrelated features of bourgeois ideological forms. First, in such economies, social relations appear in the form of (or are confused with) things. Second, what is social and historical appears to be (or is taken to be) natural and eternal. It is because social relations appear in the form of things (or are taken to be things), that capitalist social relations appear to be (or are taken to be) natural. Commodity fetishism is then, presented as the basis of ideological mystification in bourgeois society.

It can hardly be said that there has been an extensive debate on the subject. However, in contemporary discussions of fetishism two apparently opposed interpretations can be discerned which might be thought to imply very different political strategies. On the one hand, "objectivists" such as Slaughter stress that fetishism can be removed only in the practical solution of the material conditions which give rise to it. On the other hand, "subjectivists" such as Ollman suggest that fetishism is an intellectual error amenable to correction by intellectual means alone. In fact, these apparently opposed positions converge and their convergence can be traced back to shared assumptions about the nature of the working class. Slaughter and Ollman are cited only as 'representatives' of two apparently opposed understandings of fetishism common on the left.

An example of the "objectivist" account can be found in Slaughter, according to whom: 'By 'commodity fetishism' Marx means the objective appearances of the social characteristics of labour'. In other words, men's own mutual relations appear to them in the form of the set characteristics of material objects, the products of their own labour" (Cliff Slaughter, Marxism and the Class Struggle, New Park, 1975). This conception of fetishism, Slaughter argues, stresses "the actual oppression of the producers by the system of capitalist production, and not just the distortion of their class consciousness" (ibid). Fetishism is for Slaughter, a question of domination as well as of mystification. But the question of mystification is important too, for Slaughter holds that it is the objective appearances of bourgeois society which trap workers within the limitations of "trade union consciousness" (ibid). Class struggle, in this conception becomes reduced to a struggle between bourgeois ideology and marxist theory for hegemony over the consciousness of the working class : "even though the mass of workers experience exploitation, it is necessary for a struggle to take place between their existing consciousness on the one hand, and Marxism on the other" (ibid). "Consciousness", in the form of marxist theory, must, Slaughter argues, therefore be brought to the workers "from outside".

An example of the apparently opposed view -the "subjectivist" account - can be found in Ollman. The theory of commodity fetishism here "refers to people's misconception of the products of labour once they enter exchange, a misconception which accords these forms of value leading roles in what is still a human drama" (Bertell Ollman, Alienation, Cambridge 1971). Workers experience exploitation, but in the course of this experience, "are prone to confuse the means with the people who direct them, and to attribute to inanimate objects the social character of an exploiting agency" (ibid). By conceiving of means of production as means of exploitation, Ollman argues, workers grant them the power to exploit. Workers find their inclinations in conflict with the demands of a particular situation but "they consistently misunderstand and are incapable of responding to it in ways that would promote their interests" (ibid).

Elsewhere Ollman spells out the political implications more fully, although he makes no explicit reference to the theory of fetishism. Conditions have been ripe for communism since 1848: "If it was not conditions which failed Marx, it must have been the working class" (Bertell Ollman, Social and Sexual Revolution, Pluto, 1979). The task for socialists is, therefore education. Workers aged much over forty are effectively lost for revolution and socialists must focus their efforts on "teenage and even younger members of the working class" (ibid). The task is "to help alter the character structure of the next generation of workers" (ibid). Ollman's strategy for social revolution finds its highest expression in his board game Class Struggle.

"Objectivists" and "subjectivists" tend to converge in abstracting consciousness from, and counterposing it to, the rest of social reality. This necessarily creates the need to deliver "consciousness" to the workers. The project must, however, strike a reef. If fetishism is a barrier to workers' consciousness, it must also be a barrier to the consciousness of the revolutionary intelligentsia. The educators must themselves be educated. Two possibilities follow. Either there is no need to bring consciousness to the workers or it is impossible. The "solution" to the problem is a pseudo-solution and this is because the problem, as set up, is insoluble.

In fact the problem is itself a pseudo-problem. Underlying the abstraction of consciousness from the rest of social reality is the assumption- not necessarily consciously held - that the working class is essentially passive. While workers may struggle against this or that aspect of capitalism, it is assumed they never struggle against the whole. Their struggles therefore have no impact upon the social structure and so have no tendency towards communism. This supposed passivity has to be explained and the explanation has been in terms of ideology or commodity fetishism. Fetishism is an objective aspect of the social production of commodities but when the working class is assumed to be passive the question of whether fetishism is "objective" or "subjective" loses its significance. Whether fetishism is understood to be "objective" or "subjective" is secondary to the assumption of working class passivity.

It is necessary to understand the terms of reference within which such a conclusion might be reached. The principle work to be examined in this context is What Is To Be Done? This text, written in 1902, provides a particular "model" of the relations between class and party and between consciousness and ideology to which the assumption of working class passivity is central. Even those who reject or oppose "leninism" have often taken on board the assumption of working class passivity. What Is To Be Done? has become a perennial source of fascination for the left. This is because it appears to address contemporary concerns. Some of its assumptions have become a taken-for-granted frame of reference within which the left moves; they have indeed passed into the "common-sense" of the left.

The central concern of What is to be Done? is the supposed containment of the working class within the "economic struggle", through which, with the help of socialist agitation, workers learn to "sell their commodity on better terms and to fight their employers over a purely commercial deal" (WITBD). This "containment" is attributed to the influence of bourgeois ideology : "The working class spontaneously gravitates towards socialism, but the more widespread (and continually revived in the most diverse forms) bourgeois ideology nevertheless, spontaneously imposes itself still more" (Ibid).

To be freed of the influence of bourgeois ideology workers must acquire knowledge of the totality of bourgeois social relations: "Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without, that is only from outside of the economic struggle, from outside of the sphere of relations between workers and employers. The sphere from which alone it is possible to obtain this knowledge is the sphere of relationships between all the classes and strata and the state and the government, the sphere of the inter-relations between all the classes" (ibid).

Because the influence of bourgeois ideology is so strong, the knowledge necessary for revolutionary change and indeed socialist consciousness itself, can only be "brought to" the working class "from without". 'The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own efforts, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, ie the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical and economic theories that were elaborated by the educated representatives of the propertied classes, the intellectuals" (Ibid).

A number of criticisms can be made. First, the category of the "economic struggle" corresponds to no known social reality. Even the struggle over the length of the working day in the nineteenth century threw capital into crisis, necessitating the transition to another form of capital accumulation . Secondly, if history "shows" anything, it is that workers are quite capable of going beyond "trade union consciousness". 1848 and 1871 are examples - ones of which Lenin should have been aware. Indeed the experience of 1905 led Lenin to distance himself, if ambiguously, from some of his formulations about working class consciousness. Finally, if the strength of bourgeois ideology is such that it "spontaneously" imposes itself on the working class, it must "spontaneously" impose itself on the educators too. Again, the project of bringing consciousness to the workers "from the outside" is either unnecessary or impossible.

The most important point, however, concerns the abstraction of consciousness and ideology from political economy. What is to be Done? might be a response to a real problem. Although it effectively deals with only the surface phenomena, it deals with them in such a way that it has been able to pass into the common sense of the left as a set of taken-for-granted assumptions. These assumptions have become so ingrained that they are often read into Marx's discussion of commodity fetishism. In turn, the theory of fetishism is used to explain the phenomena observed in What Is To Be Done? One commentator has put it; "The classical expression of the Marxist, theory of revolutionary organisation, Lenin's What Is To Be Done?, was not written primarily as a theory of ideology as such, and Lenin does not explicitly account for the dominance of bourgeois ideology in trade-union consciousness in terms of the political economy of capitalist society. Nevertheless, his conception of a 'trained organisation of revolutionaries capable of maintaining the energy, stability and continuity of the revolutionary struggle' derives its rationale from the 'fetishism of commodities' in capitalist society" (David Binns, Beyond the Sociology of Conflict, Macmillan 1977). It is assumed that in the discussion of fetishism in 'Capital' and elsewhere Marx is concerned to understand the supposed passivity of the working class. Commodity fetishism then becomes the explanation for this supposed passivity. In fact, however, Marx is not concerned with working class passivity but with its self-activity.

This concern with the self-activity of the working class is brought out clearly in Marx's analysis of the process of class formation. This is the process by which living labour overcomes the its social atomisation and constitutes itself as a social force capable of organising production in accordance with consciously determined need. It is a process of political economy with an inherent tendency towards communism. It is out of this process that class consciousness develops. The analysis of class formation first appears in the Poverty of Philosophy (1847) and The Communist Manifesto (1848). It re-appears in Marx's "later" writings in a more developed form.

For Marx, the subordination of living labour to capital is not given, but is conditioned by the struggle of the working class. In the course of this struggle, which is at once economic and political as in the Chartist movement, for example the working class develops itself as a social force. The atomisation resulting from the competition over the sale of labour power and from the power of capital forces workers to combine to maintain their wages. In so doing they both eliminate competition among themselves and unite against their employers. In time, and especially with the experience of capitalist repression, the maintenance of combination becomes more important than the maintenance of wages. Combinations then became permanent associations, towards the preservation of which wages might often be sacrificed.

A form of self organisation developed for one purpose takes on new functions. Indeed for Marx the formation of combinations is part of the process of the formation of the class itself - not merely something workers do, but an active expression of the developing social being of the proletariat. In the place of a multitude of atomised individuals, stand networks of conscious association. Hence Marx speaks of "strikes, combinations and other forms in which the proletarians carry out before their own eyes their organisation as a class" (Poverty of Philosophy).

Consciousness grows out of the struggles of the workers themselves. In the course of this struggle the proletariat is joined by intellectuals "who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole" (Communist Manifesto). The "theoretical conclusions" of these intellectuals "are in no way based on ideas or principles invented, or discovered by, this or that would-be reformer. They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from an historical movement going on under their very eyes" (Ibid). Theory is descriptive and explanatory rather than prescriptive. It draws out, generalises or makes explicit what is already implied by the conscious struggle and organisation of workers themselves. The emphasis is on the self-activity of the working class. Indeed, in contrast to What is to be Done?, in which the working class is activated from the outside, Marx argues that revolutionary intellectuals join the working class only "in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour" (Ibid).

Marx's concern with the self-activity of the working class and the process of class formation is not restricted to the Poverty of Philosophy and The Communist Manifesto; it runs through the discussions of fetishism in Capital and elsewhere. This, however, has been obscured by the influence of the assumptions embodied in What Is To Be Done? The best accounts of fetishism have pointed to the organic connection between fetishism and the law of value. In doing so, they have specified only one part of the matrix within which the theory of fetishism is embedded. The theory of fetishism constitutes part of a totality which includes not only the law of value but also the law of planning. The law of planning is the basis for working class self-formation and it is this process of class formation which undermines the material basis of commodity fetishism: the law of value. In Marx, the theory of fetishism, is developed in connection with an account of class formation. Commodity fetishism is not the explanation of working class "passivity", but is actively undermined in the process of working class self-formation. Capital has been read, re-read, and read politically, and yet this point remains unacknowledged.

The theory of commodity fetishism refers to the inverted appearances of the social forms and relations of bourgeois commodity production and of the forces and relations of its dissolution and supervision. For Marx, fetishism is not static or unchanging but intensifies with the development of the capital form itself. Capital, however, is the social relation between capital and wage labour. It is, therefore, a relation of exploitation and of struggle. It develops through different forms and, as it changes, its fetishised forms of appearance change also. In changing, they are both intensified and suspended. This is both the result of the process of class formation and a ground of its possibility.

This side of Marx's account is easily missed. Often the key points are implied rather than stated explicitly and have therefore to be drawn out. Sometimes they take the form of apparently off-the-cuff remarks and throw-away statements, the real significance of which is unclear. This may seem odd, but this is to forget two things : First, Marx could take class struggle and class formation for granted and could not have foreseen its being deflected by the forms of the prevention of communism. Second, he could not have foreseen the ways in which the theory of fetishism would be re-interpreted in light of the prevention of communism.

Under conditions of commodity production, Marx argues, commodities exchange at their values, ie, in accordance with the labour socially necessary for their production. The production of commodities presupposes an atomised society of independent producers who produce solely for exchange, their activities being regulated neither by custom nor by conscious planning, but by the requirement that no more labour than is socially necessary shall be expended in production. The law of value regulates the social existence of the producers through competition, but this appears to the participants only in the form of the movement of prices. Social relations are not fixed but created anew with every act of exchange. The social existence of individuals is precarious because they cannot know in advance whether their labour is socially necessary.

Through money the social connections between atomised individuals are facilitated. Labour power, abstracted from and indifferent to, any specific end, becomes measurable and its measurability exists in the form of money as universal equivalent. This abstract labour is the substance of value yet value appears as a property of things. Products appear to exchange on the market in accordance with natural laws. The social basis of exchange, abstract labour, does not appear. Because individual labour is mediated by exchange, "the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations, between people at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things" (Capital vol I).

Universal exchange requires the existence of the universal equivalent: money. Because of its physical divisibility, gold is well suited for this function. Its money-form is not an intrinsic property of gold, "but is merely the form under which certain social relations manifest themselves" (Capital vol 1). Gold becomes money because all other commodities have come to express their values in it. But the actual process appears in inverted form : it appears that "all other commodities express their values in gold, because it is money" (ibid). In money, "a social relation, a definite relation between individuals, here appears as a metal, a stone, a purely physical, external thing, which can be found, as such, in nature, and whom is indistinguishable from its natural existence" (Grundrisse,1858, p 234). This is what Marx calls "the magic of money" (Capital vol I).

This tendency intensifies with the emergence of workers' co-operative factories and capitalist joint-stock companies. In both forms the function of supervision is "entirely divorced from the ownership of capital" (Capital vol III). With the development of these forms "profit appeared also in practice as it undeniably appeared in theory, as mere surplus value, a value for which no equivalent was paid, as realised unpaid surplus labour" (ibid). Again the development of the capital form reaches the stage where it can no longer hide behind appearances.

Earlier we noted that exploitation becomes increasingly obscured with the transition to the extraction of relative surplus value. This transition both develops the power of combined labour and obscures it. The powers of living labour appear transferred to capital as an activity of capital. The forms of socially developed labour - cooperation, manufacture, the factory, machinery and science - confront individual workers as powers of capital. Labour appears powerless as an independent force :"In machinery, objectified labour confronts living labour within the labour process as a power which rules it, a power which, as the appropriation of living labour, is the form of capital" (Grundrisse p 693). The totality of the powers of social labour exist, under capitalism, only when organised by capital : Social labour appears not as social labour but as the power of capital over atomised and isolated individual labourers: "this elevation of direct labour into social labour appears as a reduction of independent labour to helplessness in the face of the communality (Gemeinsamkeit) represented by and concentrated in capital." (Grundrisse p700). Thus is obscured capital's real dependence on labour.

What is veiled is "one of the civilising aspects of capital" (Capital vol III) - its propensity to create, through the development of the forces of production, the conditions and forces of its own dissolution. In developing the productive forces, capital brings into being combined labour. This appears initially as an "alien combination" forced upon the workers against their will and "subservient to and led by an alien will and intelligence" (Grundrisse p470). But, in time, it becomes a social force with the capacity for and tending towards planning.

The development of the productive forces under capital proceeds through the reduction of necessary labour time and the conversion of disposable time into surplus 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" (Grundrisse p706). The contradiction between the creation of disposable time and its conversion into surplus labour time is the basis for the transition to communism: "The more this contradiction developed the more does it become evident that the growth of the forces of production can no longer be bound up with the appropriation of alien labour, but that the mass of the workers must themselves appropriate their own surplus labour" (Grundrisse p708).

The development of combined labour as a social force manifests itself in the "transitional" forms of workers co-operatives and bourgeois joint stock companies. These forms, Marx argues, point beyond bourgeois economy. The co-operative factories of the workers "are proof that the capitalist as a functionary of production has become as superfluous to the workers as the landlord appears to the capitalist with regard bourgeois production" (TSV vol 3). They are, in other words, proof that working class self-formation has reached the point at which the specifically capitalist organisation of the immediate process of production at least has become unnecessary. In the joint stock company, moreover, a product of the same process, capital " is here directly endowed with the form of social capital (capital of directly associated individuals) as distinct from private capital, and its undertakings" (Capital vol 111). The point of the joint stock company is to spread "risk", but as Marx observes, the shareholder is taking risks not with his own property but with social property. In this form, the opposition of class interests becomes more evident as social force confronts social force.

In the course of working class self-formation, the fetishes attached to production itself seem to become progressively undermined. On the other hand, those relating to the sphere of circulation and especially finance capital have been left untouched and have even begun to intensify as finance capital begins to emerge as an (apparently) dominant form. The development of finance capital is itself a response of capital to the formation of the workers into a class - it is a tragic attempt by capital to liberate itself from its dependence upon the working class. (Hillel H. Ticktin, Critique 16, 1983) It is from this understanding of political economy that Marx's politics follows. As we shall see, with his development of the theory of fetishism, his understanding of the relation of class consciousness to class formation did not undergo substantial alteration. He presents co-operatives and trade unions as embryonic organs of class power (in conjunction with an independent party of the proletariat). Marx's assessment of this potential is inseparable from his assessment of their role within the political economy of capitalism as forms of expression of the developing "political economy of the working class".

The political economy of the working class is counterposed to that of the middle class. Marx refers to "the great contest between the blind rule of supply and demand laws which form the political economy of the middle class, and the social production controlled by foresight, which forms the political economy of the working class." (Inaugural Address). In essence, Marx is speaking of the conflict between the law of planning and the law of value. The law of value supposes a tendency for all commodities to exchange at their values; the law of planning by contrast requires the conscious regulation of production in accordance with need. The law of value and the law of planning express the two sides of the moving contradiction that is capital. The development of the law of planning is the basis of working class self formation. The greater the development of the law of planning, the greater the ability of the working class to organise production consciously and collectively to meet needs. The law of planning is inherently subversive of the role of exchange in mediating between capacities and need. In its fullest expression it is the dissolution of capital and the self abolition of the working class : communism.

The workers' co-operative factories are an appearance of the embryonic form of planning within the immediate process of production. In themselves however, the co-operatives do not challenge capital within circulation. In so far as they continue to presuppose the market, they contribute to the illusion that labour can emancipate itself within commodity production. Marx was, however, aware that the existing co-operatives could never undermine capitalism. For that to be possible, "co-operative labour ought to be developed to national dimensions and, consequently, to be fostered by national means" (ibid).

Trade unions too are presented as embryonic class organisations and as late as 1873 Marx speaks of the "combinations that constitute the working class as a class antagonistic to the respectable category of masters. entrepeneurs, and bourgeois" (Political Indifferentism). Although they had their origins in spontaneous efforts by workers to defend themselves from capital, "unconsciously to themselves, the trade unions were forming centres of organisation of the working class .... If trade unions are required for the guerilla fights between capital and labour, they are still more important as organised agencies for superseding the very system of wage labour and capital rule" (Instructions for Delegates to the Geneva Congress). The unions have tended to concentrate on local and immediate struggles with capital and held aloof from general social and political movements. They had now, Marx argued in 1866, to "learn to act deliberately as organising centres of the working class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation" (ibid).

To defeat the "collective power of the propertied classes", Marx argued in 1871, the Working class had to constitute itself as "a political party, distinct from, and opposed to, all old parties formed by the propertied classes" (Speech to the London Conference on Working Class Political Action). This party - the International - is not conceived to be external to the working class and bringing consciousness to it "from without", for the International "was established by the working men themselves and for themselves" (ibid). It works in conjunction with the co-operatives and the trade unions, which are conceived to be embryonic organs of working class power because of their effects on the political economy of capitalism, namely their ability to subvert the law of value. In the Provisional Rules of the International Working Men's Association (1866) Marx claims that "the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves."

In Marx, commodity fetishism is not introduced to explain the supposed passivity of the working class because this supposition is not made. The theory of commodity fetishism does not contradict the principle of proletarian self-emancipation.

Events since Marx's death, however, might be taken as grounds for doubt. The 20th century has witnessed the apparent de-politicisation of the workers' movement, the growing incorporation of the trades unions, the repeated accommodation to reformism, the outbreak of two world wars, the rise of fascism, the sustained failure of proletarian revolution and the emergence of monstrous bureaucratic regimes claiming to represent the interests of the world proletariat. These developments weigh like a nightmare on the minds of aspiring revolutionaries. This nightmare appears to justify the assumption of working class passivity which lies at the heart of 20th century socialist ideology.

Actually it is possible to acknowledge the reality of this nightmare without also accepting the purported conclusion. The political economy of the world has changed since Marx and the political effects of these changes - or, at least some, of them - are registered in ' What Is To Be Done?, But because the underlying political economy is not also analysed, the necessity of working class passivity seems to be implied. When, however, these phenomena are located in terms of the political economy of the epoch, it becomes possible to resist this implication.

Proletarian self-emancipation presupposes abundance. It also, and crucially, presupposes that the power of combined labour has developed to the point where its existence is incompatible with the continued rule of capital. This incompatibility does not immediately result in revolution but rather signals the beginning of an epoch - long and tortuous - of transition, punctuated at various points by revolutions. The power of combined labour ensures that the development of the productive forces can no longer proceed on the basis of unimpeded operation of the law of value; development takes place through the decay of the capital form itself. "As soon as it [capital] begins to sense itself and become conscious of itself as a barrier to development it seeks refuge in forms which, by restricting free competition, seem to make the rule of capital more perfect, but are at the same time heralds of its dissolution and of the dissolution of the mode of production resting on it."(Grundrisse p651).

Capital is in potential and in tendency, a global phenomenon. To he able to supersede the capital form, the working class must therefore form itself as a class globally. At the very least absolute poverty and abstract labour must exist globally if workers are to assert themselves as the universal class. To the extent that further proletarianisation is possible, to that extent capital can cheat the grave.

In the late 19th century the growth of combined labour threatened capital accumulation in its heartlands of western Europe but only in its heartlands. Because combined labour could not yet form itself as a class globally, its tendency towards communism could be checked. This prevention of communism involved the conscious intervention of the bourgeoisie into its own political economy. The Paris Commune, the "new unionism" in Britain, and the growth of the SPD in Germany allowed the bourgeoisie a glimpse of the potential power of combined labour. This power was incompatible with the unimpeded functioning of the law of value. The latter was consciously limited through the acceptance of trades unions as representatives of labour within capitalism and through the beginnings of a welfare programme which softened the effects of absolute poverty. The law of value came increasingly to rest upon, while the law of planning was strangled by, bureaucratic administration. With the formal and bureaucratic recognition of needs and the self-limitation of capital, space opened up for the representation of the working class within bourgeois society.

Social democracy at home rested upon imperialism abroad, their unifying principle being finance capital. By transferring capital investment to areas where little or no proletarianisation had yet taken place finance capital was able to temporarily outflank the development of the working class. By conceding locally capital was able to preserve accumulation globally. Ultimately, however, this process results in a global working class from which capital can do little to free itself. The prevention of communism obstructs the process of class formation only to bring about the conditions for its further development.

The prevention of communism intensifies with the development of stalinism . This grew out of the October revolution: the working class seized power under adverse circumstances and lost it, but to avoid globalising the revolution, capital was forced to avoid reasserting its dominance. As a result capital had to accept the absence of the capital-form - and therefore the presence of bureaucratic administration - within a whole national economy. This in turn forced it to accept the further intensification of the prevention of communism outside the USSR: the extension of social democratic nationalisation and the welfare state, the acceptance of "full employment" and central economic organisation. These forms preserve capitalism by checking the tendency towards communism but at the same time restrict the sphere of operation of the law of value and so act as a barrier to capital accumulation.

With the development of the prevention of communism the working class struggles within and against a new social reality. As apparent alternatives to capitalism, the forms of the prevention of communism appear to obviate the need for the workers themselves to take power directly. The formal recognition of needs appears to obviate the need for proletarian self-organisation. By mitigating the effects of absolute poverty, social democracy and stalinism create a barrier to proletarian self-formation in the form of the representation of the working class. The working class can now struggle for concessions within bourgeois society and its struggles lose their political edge - space opens up for the representation of the working class but at the same tune the limits of that space are carefully policed.

On the other hand, especially with the passing of time, it becomes increasingly clear that social democracy and stalinism have failed from the perspective of working class needs. This fact enters workers' consciousness. But social democracy and stalinism are the outcomes of struggles waged by workers themselves and this fact too enters working class consciousness. Workers are aware that they are exploited under capitalism but they are also aware that the historically existing "alternatives" do not solve the problem. In so far as the forms of the prevention of communism appear as alternatives, by appearing to be the only possible alternatives, they seem to indicate that there is in fact no alternative.

The prevention of communism permits the nationalised recognition of needs within the wider context of a world market economy, this nationalised recognition of needs being the basis for the global preservation of capital. The law of value is suspended to different degrees within specific national locations in order for it to be preserved globally through finance capital. International finance capital thus becomes the source of external discipline which is transmitted to the working class within specific national locations, through the forms of the prevention of communism. Through the movements of financial capital, absolute poverty and abstract labour are constantly re-created globally. Workers organise nationally only to find that the problem is international. Finance capital appears to be beyond the reach of working class action.

There is a sense in which social production has become increasingly "de-fetishised". To the extent that the law of value decays into bureaucratic administration social relations become more "transparent". Nationalisation, government subsidisation of industries inefficient from the standpoint of value, the welfare state, "full employment" etc indicate that the distribution of social labour can no longer be achieved through the law of value alone, but increasingly requires direct forms of social control. Thus, for example, the government intervenes in the "economy" to influence "demand", interest rates and inflation, to set up relatively permanent institutions of industrial arbitration, to adjust rents and to maintain of undermine "full" employment. With this intensification of direct forms of social control, however, it becomes clearer that it is people and not things which are the source of the problem. On the other hand, these non-value forms of control themselves are subordinate to value globally and function to preserve it. Social democracy and stalinism thus combine with finance capital to sustain the illusion of the eternality of the value form.

The problem is further complicated by the fact that much of the left has tended to present the forms of the prevention of communism as being transitional to communism. This is true not only of orthodox Stalinist organisations but also of certain strands of trotskyism. For some of the latter: "The Soviet experience, despite its very specific character, was nevertheless a great laboratory for establishing the superiority of planning over the anarchic market economy of capitalism, and for learning from the gross mistakes and miscalculations perpetrated by the Stalinist bureaucracy" (Anonymous "Forward" to the New Park edition of Trotsky's Towards Capitalism or Socialism, 1978,p70). By presenting stalinism as being with whatever critical reservations, an advance on capitalism, such statements only obstruct the movement towards communism. Worse still, when the working class begins to move against the social forms within which it has been partially contained, it finds itself being urged back into line by the self-proclaimed enemies of the existing order: not only by the social democrats and the Stalinists but also by those who claim to have developed the revolutionary critique. Workers rejection of the forms of the prevention of communism is then taken as evidence of continued passivity in the face of bourgeois ideology. The active intervention of these organisations into the communist movement of the working class itself obstructs that movement.

Communism has thus become identified with the prevention of communism. Disillusionment with the prevention of communism takes the form of disillusionment with communism itself. This does not imply a simple ideological victory for value. Consciousness can be understood only in its relation to political economy and the political economy of the working class is conscious determination of needs. Having been forced to recognise needs, even if only formally and bureaucratically, capital cannot institute their derecognition when the need arises. While it has been possible, with the unwitting aid of the left, to discredit communism, it is impossible to discredit needs. The political economy of the working class has not been - and cannot be -dislodged.

Communism is not an ethical ideal to be realised by means of proletarian revolution. As the society of the freely associating producers, communism is a practical need and can emerge only out of the struggles of the workers themselves. Proletarian revolution is not one possible means amongst others by which to bring into being a desired end, but the necessary outcome of a real social process.

This process is the process of self-formation of the working class. Marx observed it at the moments of the (partial) victory of the political economy of the working class over the political economy of the bourgeoisie, and recognised it as a process tending towards communism. Since Marx, however, the intervention of the bourgeoisie into its own political economy has appeared to undermine the possibility of proletarian self-emancipation. The results of this intervention have been understood in terms of consciousness and ideology alone and thus the communist perspective has been lost.

If we are to retrieve this perspective we must re-found our analysis on the movement of the working class itself. The critique of social democracy and stalinism cannot be developed in terms of consciousness alone but must begin form the standpoint of working class needs. Our task is not to apportion blame but to re-found marxism on the basis of an analysis of class composition and class formation within the political economy of the epoch as a whole. Failing to do this, the left has been unable to free itself from the inherited ideology of working class passivity. Losing contact with the political economy of the working class, the left is reduced to making assertion about consciousness, which assertions must degenerate into sectarianism.

It is unfortunate that many of those who have stressed the reality of proletarian self-activity have done so in a rather crude fashion. This is true of certain strands of autonomism. Thus Cleaver, for example, sometimes - but not always - presents the struggle of the working class as a process without end (Harry Cleaver, Reading Capital Politically, Harvester, 1979) If, however, the working class can continue to transform the social forms of capital accumulation indefinitely, the struggle of the working class has no tendency towards communism. Failing to analyse the fate of the law of value under the impact of the self-formation of the proletariat, the critique of "leninism" and "leninism" itself become polar opposites which eternally reproduce each other.

The crucial thing is to recognise the problem. Included in this is the unbridgeable gap between the project outlined in What Is To Be Done? and the principle of proletarian self-emancipation which formed the bedrock of the International Working Men's Association. We must return to Marx. More importantly, however, we must return to the developing political economy of the working class. Crucially, we must examine the conditions which are the outcome of working class struggle but against which the working class is forced to struggle again, if we are to understand the full complexity and difficulty of the situation. To begin to characterise this complexity we can use the words of William Morris, bearing in mind the different context in which they were written and discounting their gender specificity, reflecting on " ... how men right and lose the battle and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes about turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name" (A Dream of John Ball). But this, it should be stressed, can only be our starting point.


The myth of working class passivity.mobi34.17 KB


Jun 17 2011 12:55

N.B. The debate about Lenin's What is to be done? has been considerably deepened, although not resolved, since the publication of Lars Lih's Lenin Rediscovered. See the 'Symposium on Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered', HISTORICAL MATERIALISM VOLUME 18 NUMBER 3 (2010)

Jun 17 2011 18:31

Who are radical chains? Is it a journal?

Thanks for posting all this interesting looking stuff, BTW.

Jun 17 2011 20:40

I have Radical Chains no. 1. From what I can tell it was a journal that emerged out of a Grundrisse discussion group in London circa. late 80s / early 90s. I am sure posters who were around at the time can add more.