This was the preface to the Antagonism Press edition in London (1997). Some changes and additions have been made to the text and notes.
One of the best films about class conflict includes a ten-minute sharp and biting shot, taken on June 10, 1968, outside the gates of the Wonder factory—a battery-maker—on the outskirts of Paris.1 Most of the workers were unskilled, low-paid, looked-down-upon women, often handling dirty chemicals. They’d been on strike since May 13th and were just about to go back in. What concessions they’d snatched from the boss were a lot in terms of better work conditions, and little compared to the energy put into the struggle. In the middle of the arguing group is a woman in her twenties—half shouting, half crying—who won’t be talked into returning: “No, I’m not going back. I’ll never set foot there again! Go and see for yourself what a shit-hole it is… what filth we work in…”
In 1996, a documentary interviewed people involved in that strike: men and women workers, foremen, a Trotskyist typist, shop stewards, union activists, the local Communist Party leader who tried to convince the young woman to resume work. She, however, is untraceable. Few remember her well. She left the factory soon after the events and nobody knows what became of her, or even her full name, only the first one: Jocelyne.
We’re left with one decisive question unanswered, the question posed by Jocelyne’s reaction: in “normal” peaceful life, habits and guidelines weigh upon us, and it is practically inevitable to submit. But when millions of strikers build up collective strength, render the State helpless and media words worthless, bring a whole country to the verge of overall change, and realise they’re given pay rises which will soon be eaten up by inflation, why is it that they step back into what they know amounts to dire or soft misery for the next twenty years?
Many a radical school of thought will come up with its ready-made answer and solution. Some will reply that Jocelyne and her workmates had been betrayed by the wrong sort of leaders, or brainwashed by the media, or manipulated by the unions, some will assert workers suffered from an absence of organisation, others that they lacked spontaneity and autonomy, while wise guys will explain May ’68 was bound to fail because capitalist evolution had not yet created the prerequisites of the conditions of true communist revolution, which fortunately are now coming to full maturation............
This is no maths exercise where you have to find the right clue. In the words of a Persian poet, “this deep riddle will ne’er be solved by science and research.”2 The following essays merely ask this first and foremost question:
How does class struggle (under capitalism, history’s prime mover) connect with human emancipation which goes beyond class? Class struggle concerns us in so far as it can produce its own end: communism. As we know, that struggle can also feed on itself, forcing the capital-labour relation to change, to get both softer and stronger, and this is what class struggle does most of the time.
The crux of communist theory is to know if, how, and when the proletarians wage a class struggle that is able to produce more than itself.
Communist revolution is not just an intensified extension of the labour v. capital confrontation: it intensifies this confrontation and breaks away from it.
One of the texts, “The Class Struggle and Its Most Characteristic Aspects in Recent Years,” was first conceived not long after the Wonder plant, like many others, returned to work. “Leninism and the Ultra-Left” goes back to 1969. “Capitalism and Communism” came out in 1972 at the request of a number of workers who circulated the first draft, at the Paris Renault plant among others.
These three essays aimed at reasserting communism against an ideology named “Marxism”—official, leftist, or academic.
Why call ourselves communist?
The more a lexical item means, the more likely it is to be put into hard labour by the ruling order.3
Like “freedom,” “autonomy,” “humanity,” and a host of other words, communism has been twisted, turned upside down, and is currently a synonym of life under a benevolent/dictatorial totalitarian State. Only a free, autonomous, human, communist awakening will make these words meaningful again.
Although common wisdom proclaims that radical thought is obsolete, the last twenty-five years offer ample proof of its relevance.
Class and class struggle? No need to read two thousand pages by Marx to realise that those dispossessed of the means of production have fought (and so far been defeated by) those who control them. In the early nineteenth century, a utopian socialist reformer like Saint-Simon as well as academics were among the first to theorise class: bourgeois historians analysed the French revolution as the conflict between aristocracy and bourgeoisie. Two hundred years later, the strength of the ruling class is to make us forget it exists.
Value defined by the average social time necessary to manufacture goods? It’s plain our civilisation has an obsession with shortening time. Computerisation, electronic highways and cell phones on every street corner speed up circulation. Work, shopping, and leisure alike treat every act of life as though it had to be turned into an ever-faster flow. Paul Virilio describes how economy does not produce just objects but speed, and indeed objects only as far as they produce speed. Though his stance is completely different from Marx’s, Virilio points at a world that prides itself on reducing the time needed to achieve everything, i.e. a world run by minimal time—by value.4
Profit making as the driving force of this world? Anyone who has lost his job in a firm he gave twenty years of his life to, can see that a company is accumulated value constantly looking for its own accretion and crushing whatever hinders it.
The decreasing numbers of Western factory workers, the coming down of the Berlin Wall, and the withering away of far-left groups mean the final downfall of communism only to those who portrayed blue collar workers as the salt of the earth, equated socialism with planned economy, and enjoyed marching in the street under the North Vietnam flag.
The collapse of so-called socialist countries proved how economy rules. East and West have both gone through accumulation crises. Trying to regain profitability required a new system of production in Cleveland, a new political regime in Moscow. State capitalism did not fail because people got fed up with totalitarianism, but when it was no longer able to support itself and give substance to its oppression.
Centralised economic planning was just about all right for developing capital goods industries; and bureaucratic power rested on a compromise with the peasants on the one hand (after the horrors of forced collectivisation, the kolkhoznik was left free to attend to his allotment), and the workers on the other (job for life plus minimal social security, in exchange for political submission). This unspoken bargain may have been OK for Russia in 1930, but not in 1980, let alone for East Germany or Czechoslovakia in 1980. Capitalism needs some degree of competition between conflicting poles of accumulated value confronting each other, and a certain dose of political competition as well. Eventually State-led capitalism exhausted its propulsive force and even bureaucrats no longer believed their own lies.
The breaking up of the USSR is not the definitive refutation of Marx, but the verification of Das Kapital. The Politburo could fiddle its own internal market but not evade world trade pressures. The same market forces that were laying off thousands in Liverpool were busy smashing the bureaucratic dykes that blocked the streams of money and commodities in Leningrad. The spectre still haunts us, the Wall Street Journal wrote in 1991, in reference to the 1848 Manifesto: “Marx’s analysis can be applied to the amazing disintegration of communist regimes built on the foundations of his thought but unfaithful to his prescriptions.”
There had been workers’ uprisings before, openly confronting both the State and the institutionalised labour movement, and many far more violent, after 1917 for example. But around 1970, the upheaval had something more global and deeper about it. Contrary to 1871, 1917–21 or 1936–37, capital had penetrated the whole of life in industrialised countries, turned more and more everyday acts and relationships into commodities, and unified society under its dominion. Politics as the confrontation of utterly opposed political programmes was on the way out. In ’68, French unions and labour parties were able to stifle a four or five-million three-week strike, but could no longer put forward a platform alternative to that of “bourgeois” parties. Those who had taken part in the general strike did not expect much more from a possible left government than a more generous welfare. Mixed economy was the order of the day, with an emphasis on State intervention when the left was in power, on market forces when votes swung to the right.
In the 1960s less than now, but a lot more than before the 1939–45 war, commodity relationships mediated the simplest human needs. The American dream is yours if you’re rich enough to buy it: even so, the most desirable car is never the one you’ve just bought, rather the next one on the TV commercial. Goods are always at their best on posters. Just when a Russian-style workers’ paradise was no longer valid, the consumer heaven appeared out of reach. So no future could be found through the factory, neither the nightmare the other side of the Iron Curtain, nor the dreamland this side of the screen. As a result, the workplace declined as a place where to start building a better world. Although the Situationist Society of the Spectacle had few readers at the time, its publication in 1967 was a forerunner of critiques to come. True, that period also meant unionisation for many downtrodden poorly paid workers who finally got into the twentieth century, and only a minority of the working class voiced a refusal of society, rebels with a cause on the fringe of the labour force, the young especially. But the worldwide strike and riot wave remains incomprehensible without its underlying characteristic: mass disaffection for factory and office life. “Who wants to work?” Newsweek asked in the mid-1970s.
Still, nearly all sit-downs occupied the workplace and went no further. There were many transgressing gestures: takeover of gas and transport services by Polish strikers in 1971, Italian self-reduction, squatting, “giveaway” “social” strikes by bus drivers, hospital staff, and supermarket cashiers providing transport, health care, and food free of charge, electricity workers cutting off supplies to bureaucrats or firms, and a thousand other instances. Yet hardly any turned into a beginning of communisation. The disruption of work and the trespassing of commodity did not merge into an attack on work-as-commodity, i.e. wage labour as such. From prison to child education, everything came under fire, yet the assault remained mainly negative.
The lack of creative attempts to transform society gave the impetus back to capitalism.
Historical upheavals have no date of birth or death, but surely Fiat was more than a symbol—a landmark. For years the Turin firm had been plagued by permanent stoppages of assembly lines, mass absenteeism and meetings on the premises. However, organised disorder did not transcend negation into something positive. Thus the management was able to break a (fairly large) minority, with the passive help of a weary majority fearing for their jobs. Radicals had disrupted a social logic, not shifted into a new one. Violent (even armed) actions gradually disconnected from the shop floor. In 1980, the company laid off 23,000 out of 140,000: the factory went on strike for thirty-five days, until a mix of 40,000 Fiat workers, clerks, and middle managers took to the streets against the strike. The unions signed a compromise whereby the 23,000 got State compensation money, and later many more thousands were sacked through rationalisation. On such turning points was the social surge of the 1960s–70s reversed.
Logically, worker class defeat was translated into political terms, on all sides of the political spectrum. On the right, Thatcher and Reagan epitomised the liberal swing. On the left, the French Socialist Party came to power in 1981, only to turn to austerity after two years. British Labour embraced market economics. The Italy CP used to get as much as 30 percent of overall vote in the 1970s: it gradually gave up any extremist appearances, became the Party of the Democratic Left, dropped the hammer and sickle, evolved into the Democrats of the left and later a mere Democratic Party.
Since then, the defeats of the European, North American, and Japanese working class have been due to its defensive position against a constantly mobile opponent. However deeply entrenched in mines or workshops, workers’ militancy could not resist restructuring. Labour is strong as long as it’s necessary to capital. Otherwise, it can delay redundancy, sometimes for years with support from the rest of the working community, but it can’t stay on for ever as an unprofitable labour force. In the 1970s and ’80s workers had number and organisation, later they lost because the economy deprived them of their function, which is their social weapon. As proved by the English miners’ strike in 1984–85, nothing will force capital to hire labour that is not useful to it, and ten years later there were more university lecturers than miners in England.5
For years, assembly line workers had rejected being treated like human robots, while a minority turned away from work and the consumer society. Capital replied by installing mechanical robots, suppressing millions of jobs and revamping, intensifying, densifying what was left of unskilled labour. At the same time, a widespread desire for freedom was converted into freedom to buy. In 1960, who imagined that one day a twelve-year-old could get cash out of a dispenser with her own plastic card? Her money—her freedom… The famous slogans of ’68: Never work! and Ask for the impossible! were mocked when people were forced out of secure jobs and offered ever more plentiful and frustrating goods to buy… often on credit.
Many compare today’s situation to the 1920s and ’30s—fascist threat included.6 However, unlike the insurrections and armed counter-revolution that took place between 1917 and 1937, the present proletarian setback has been a protracted and gradual absorption of vast sections of the working class into joblessness and casualisation. “If there was hope, it must lie in the proles,” Winston said in 1984. It’s as though a lot of the proles of the real 1984 year had been fighting for two decades, nearly taken the world into their hands but refused either to accept or change it until the impetus ran out of steam. In the 1920s, their grandfathers had locked themselves behind factory gates, sometimes with guns (Italy, 1920), fought and died, and class conflict ended up with bosses’ victory.7 This time only a handful got their guns (and even less with mass unemployment: one does not shoot at a closing plant). So, more a failure than a defeat, actually. Like a player stepping aside from a fixed game: he can’t or won’t smash the place, and lets the fixers win.
That game was lost, there’s no use denying it. Capitalism triumphs, more fluid and immaterial than twenty-five years ago, universalising everything in an abstract, passive, screen-wise, negative way. A ’60s commercial, reproduced in Situationist International no. 7, pictured factory workers commenting a newspaper page with an advertisement for a washing machine, and wondering: “Who makes this model?” Forcibly part-time or flexible, the year 2000 car worker will watch Crash on TV while his kid plays a video game that uses chips which could one day “downsize” his father or himself. Never before has humankind been so unified and divided. Billions watch the same pictures and live ever more separate lives. Goods are at the same time mass produced and unavailable. In 1930, millions were out of work because of a huge economic breakdown. Now millions are on the dole, the economy cannot make profits out of them as it did in the post-1945 recovery, the profitability crisis of the 1970s is not over, and labour productivity has risen so much that capital needs less labour to valorise itself.
The workers’ movement that existed in 1900, or still in 1936, was neither crushed by fascist repression nor bought off by transistors or fridges: it destroyed itself as a force of change because it aimed at preserving the proletarian condition, not superseding it. At best it got a better life for the toiling masses: that seemed to tame the system… before the system produced its worst in the form of two world wars.
The worker movement as we knew it is now as dead as British Old Labour, and the popularity of films about workers’ culture is a sure sign of its passing from reality into memories and museums. Stalinists turn social-democrat and social democracy goes centre-left. Everybody shifts to the right and soon Trotskyists will name themselves radical democrats.8 As for us, we won’t feel nostalgic about a time when crowds paraded the streets singing “The Internationale” when they were in fact supporting groups trying to be the extreme-left of the left.
The purpose of the old labour movement was to take over the same world and manage it in a new way: forcing the leisure class to work, turning unproductive into productive work, developing industry, introducing workers’ democracy (in theory, of course). Only a tiny minority, “anarchist” as well as “Marxist,” held that a different society meant the destruction of State, commodity, and wage labour, although it rarely defined this as a process, rather as a programme to put into practice after the seizure of power, often after a fairly long transition period. These revolutionaries failed to grasp communism as a social movement whose action would undermine the foundations of class and State power, and misunderstood the subversive potential of fraternal, open, communistic relationships that kept re-emerging in every deep insurrection (Russia 1917–19, Catalonia 1936–37…).
There is no need to create the capitalist preconditions of communism any more. Capitalism is everywhere, yet much less visible than one hundred or fifty years ago when class distinctions ostensibly showed up. The manual worker identified the factory owner at one glance, knew or thought he knew his enemy, and felt he’d be better off the day he and his mates got rid of the boss. Today classes still exist, but manifested through infinite degrees in consumption, and no-one expects a better world from public ownership of industry. The “enemy” is an impalpable social relationship, abstract yet real, all-pervading yet no monster beyond our reach: because the proletarians are the ones that produce and reproduce the world, they can disrupt and revolutionise it. The aim of a future revolution will be immediate communisation, not fully completed before a generation or more, but to be started from the beginning. Capital has invaded life, and determines how we eat, sleep, love, visit, or bury friends, to such an extent that our objective can only be the social fabric, invisible, all-encompassing. Although capital is quite good at hiring personnel to defend it, social inertia is a greater conservative force than media or police.
The 1991 Los Angeles riots went further than those of Watts in 1965. The succession of estate riots shows a significant fraction of youth cannot be integrated. Here and there, in spite of mass unemployment, workers won’t be blackmailed into accepting lower wages as barter against job creation. South Korean factory workers have proved the “World Company” spreads shop-floor restlessness at the same time as it accumulates windfall profits, and “backward” Albania gave birth to a modern rising in 1997.9 When a sizeable minority fed up with virtual reality starts making possibilities real, revolution will rise again, terrible and anonymous.
This is dedicated to Jocelyne, the unknown worker.
- 1. The French documentary Reprise, by Hervé Le Roux, was released in 1996. https://youtu.be/ht1RkTMY0h4
- 2. Shams al-Din Hafez, fourteenth century.
- 3. “Captive Words,” in Situationist International no. 10, 1966.
- 4. Paul Virilio has invented dromology, the science and logic of speed (Speed and Politics, 1977). In true postmodernist fashion, he is quite good at sometimes brilliant descriptions of social phenomena the structure and cause of which he does not perceive, nor is really interested in.
- 5. Andrew Miles and Mike Savage, The Remaking of the British Working Class, 1840–1940 (New York: Routledge, 1994).
- 6. When social ties come unloose and no human community is yet emerging, closed-in communities spring up. The swelling tide of nationalist, regionalist, ethno-religious, xenophobic grouplets and parties since the 1990s is not to be minimised, nor their ability to exploit ethnic fault lines and pit one group against another. In future turbulent times, they will complement the official repression agencies in breaking strikes, disrupting meetings, beating up radicals, planting bombs, etc. However, this is different from interwar fascism. Mussolini and Hitler smashed a worker movement which the bourgeoisie perceived as a threat (a bit rightly, mostly mistakenly, but after all the Russian revolution did wipe out the bourgeois ruling class, before installing a new kind of—bureaucratic—capitalist class). Today’s far right is a marginal anti-revolutionary force compared to police and army, whether they get their orders from a right-wing or a left-wing government. So far.
- 7. Paolo Spriano, The Occupation of the Italian Factories: Italy 1920 (London: Pluto Press, 1975), available at https://libcom.org/history/occupation-factories-italy-1920-paolo-spriano.
- 8. In 2009, the French Trotskyist Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire became the Nouveau Parti Anti-Capitaliste. If language means anything, giving up the revolution denotation was significant, as was trading a reference to a positive programmatic content for a general statement of opposition to capitalism.
In the early 1980s, supposedly docile South Korean labour grew into an insubordinate social force. A few landmarks: the 1980 Gwangju popular rising crushed by the army; the 1987 “Great Labour Struggle”; the 1996–97 general strike.
On Albania in 1997, see “Upheaval in the Land of the Eagles” (TPTG, 1998), available at https://libcom.org/library/upheaval-land-eagles.