“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” (The Sign of the Four, 1890)
Three editions in forty years. Not much to be proud of. When radical critique is republished, it is proof that a whole generation (author included) failed to achieve the overall change that generation was aiming at. It also reminds us that revolution is not made by books, magazines, leaflets, or online postings: words are blank bullets.
New editions are only a good omen if writer and reader understand how much the republished texts were relevant… and still are. In our case, this implies some appraising of the current situation. The Black & Red (1974) and the Antagonism (1998) editions contained prefaces dealing with periods as different from each other as both were from the present situation. The contemporary crisis is probably deeper than that of the 1970s, but more difficult to grasp.
Our 1973 belief that “counter-revolution is finally coming to a close, a new movement is rising…” was clearly mistaken. In fact, what followed the 1970s is hardly comparable with the interwar counter-revolution, because there was no serious insurrectionary attempt in the ’60s and ’70s, so in spite of bloodshed and repression, in Latin America and Asia particularly, Western and Japanese capitalism could afford to be less violently antirevolutionary than in the days of Hitler and Stalin.
Such a sequence of events is enough to cast doubt on a determinist undercurrent that flows through some parts of this book that were written in the early ’70s. This raises the question of why and how radicals are tempted to turn history into a pre-conditioned one-way road to revolution:
It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do. Its aim and historical action is visibly and irrevocably foreshadowed in its own life situation as well as in the whole organisation of bourgeois society today. There is no need to explain here that a large part of the English and French proletariat is already conscious of its historic task and is constantly working to develop that consciousness into complete clarity (The Holy Family, IV, 4, Critical comment no. 2).
This was written in 1844: we now know that the last sentence did not agree with facts. But there is more here than meets the eye. Marx and Engels wished to distance themselves from utopians (who relied on consciousness, morals, or the generosity of bourgeois kind enough to finance their dreamland schemes), as well as from reformists (who hoped for gradual evolution). On the contrary, Marx and Engels contended that, however weak, defeated, or non-revolutionary the proletarians may be, their success was rooted in the implacable condition that capital forced upon labour:
Capitalism → Communism
More than a century later, radicals like us would take up this quote and similar ones as ammunition against Leninist party-building, and against activism: trying to give history a push. We wished to stress that the proletarians do more than resist exploitation and oppression: they have an inner ability to self-organise and eventually revolutionise the wage-labour and statist world into communism, because their condition itself carries this possibility.
Presenting a possibility as a historical necessity always contains the risk of cultivating a mapped-out vision, as if the proletariat were fulfilling a destiny, as if we were prophets of the ultimate meaning of history: determinism is teleology for the materialist. The formula
Capitalism → Proletariat → Communism
is only valid if the middle term acts revolutionary. Communist theory has certainty of purpose, not of success (see below, sections 3 and 5).
We have seen in chapter 5 that Marx’s analysis of value was open to dispute. More generally, how does the vision of people like Marx relate to social-democrat watered-down Marxism, and to the monstrosities that labelled themselves “communist” in the twentieth century?
In the late 1960s and in the ’70s, “going back to Marx” was imperative if we wished to understand what we were experiencing.1 Our return to revolutionary history included the left opposition to the Third International (the “Italian” and “German-Dutch” lefts), but also pre- and post-1914 anarchism. Contrary to Marx’s 1872 anti-Bakunin pamphlet (one of his weakest writings2), a veritable split happened in the mid-nineteenth century within the revolutionary movement between what became stultified as Marxism and anarchism. Later of course the split got worse. As readers can see for themselves, we are not adding little bits of Bakunin to big chunks of Marx: we are only trying to assess both Marx and Bakunin as Marx and Bakunin themselves had to assess, say, Babeuf or Fourier.
There was a progressivist dimension in Marx: he shared the nineteenth century’s belief in evolution as a succession of logically necessary steps on the way to a happy future, with the certainty that today was better than yesterday, and tomorrow surely brighter. He held a linear view of history, and built up a deterministic continuity from primitive community to communism, which can be summed up like this:
In early history, when human groups were able to produce more than was necessary for immediate survival, this surplus created the possibility of exploitation: a minority forced the majority to work and grabbed the riches. Thousands of years later, thanks to capitalist industrialisation, the huge expansion of productivity makes the end of exploitation possible. Goods are so plentiful that it becomes absurd to have a minority monopolise them. And production is so socialised that it becomes pointless (and counterproductive) to have it run by a handful of rulers each managing his own private business. The bourgeois were historically necessary: now their own achievement (modern economic growth) turns them into parasites. Capitalism makes itself useless.
True, such an intellectual pattern was never actually written down by Marx, but it is the underlying logic beneath a lot of his texts and (what’s more important) a lot of his political activity. It was no accident or mistake if he tactically supported the German national bourgeoisie and was often tolerant of openly reformist union or party leaders: he regarded them as agents of the positive change that would eventually bring about communism. By contrast, he looked down on such insurrectionists as Bakunin whom he thought stood outside the real movement of history.
Though the deterministic Marx was not the whole Marx, who showed a long-standing interest in what did not fit within the linear succession of historical phases, Marxism was born as the ideology of economic development: if capitalism gets more and more socialised, there’s little need for revolution: the organised masses will eventually put a (mainly peaceful) end to bourgeois anarchy. In sum, socialism does not break with capitalism: it completes it. Radicals only differed from gradualists in that they added the necessity of violence to the process. In Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), Lenin made much of the fact that big German konzerns and cartels were already organised and centralised from the top: if bourgeois managers were replaced by working class ones, and this rational planning was extended from each private trust to the whole of industry, the general social fabric would be altered. This was no breakaway from the commodity and the economy. Any economic definition of communism remains within the scope of the economy, i.e. the separation of productive time-space from the rest of life.
Defining class and proletariat appeared fairly simple in 1848:
The lower strata of the middle class—the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants—all these sink gradually into the proletariat… Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population… The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of modern industry; the proletariat is its special and essential product. (Communist Manifesto, chap. 1)
As early as the end of the nineteenth century, revolutionary activity ran into an unanticipated problem when capitalist development proved a long way from creating an overwhelming worker mass that would gradually absorb most other classes and incorporate them into a compact whole ready to fight for socialism.
As we know, after 1917, the vast majority of the working class did not act in a revolutionary way.
When Hermann Gorter put the failure of German revolution after 1918 down to the social and political (dead)weight of the petit-bourgeois, his explanation was perfectly coherent with his vision of revolution. For him, as for most communists and a lot of anarchists at the time, revolution was the logical ultimate consequence of the growth of the toiling masses within a capitalist system which they were going to overthrow and replace by a community of associated producers.3
This is giving too much credit to the middle classes: the relevant question is what gave them the capacity to stand in the way of proletarian action. In post-1919 Germany, when Gorter stressed the loneliness of the proletariat, by which he meant industrial workers, he was acknowledging the inability of the revolutionary to offer to the clerk, shopkeeper, or small farmer a better future under socialism other than to become a factory worker. In Germany, Gorter wrote in 1920, “the proletariat stands alone.”4 Limiting the revolution to work and to the worker was making a virtue of necessity. The insurgent workers had been incapable of achieving what the bourgeois have done: in the nineteenth century, and to a lesser extent in the twentieth, the bourgeoisie has been able “to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society … to give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones. The class making a revolution appears from the very start … not as a class but as the representative of the whole of society.” (German Ideology, 1845–46, part 1, B)
On the contrary, most of the time, the proletarian movement identified with and acted as a worker movement, and this is one of the reasons why it failed.
Only in its sharpest and deepest moments was the labour movement capable of going at least partially beyond the issue of labour, of becoming multi-dimensional, and logically it was at those peak-times that it proved the strongest against capital and State: to give just a few Eurocentric examples, the Paris Commune, some aspects of the October Revolution, Germany 1919–21, Spain in the 1930s…
History has turned the page now. We still live in an industrial society, but everyone does not work in a factory, and, although half of all Earthlings are now towns-people, revolution will not be achieved without the two or three billions of “semi-proletarians” (those “without reserve,” a lot of whom are semi-rural)—let alone against them. As they communise, the proletarians will change their own condition by also bringing along and involving those few billions without whom there will be no change. Communisation will neither be a class dictatorship nor a class alliance. The proletarians will transform themselves at the same time as they will transform other groups. Communisation will destroy and create. It will reject and bring together. There is no point in counter-posing the workers as a bloc against the rest, as Gorter theorised it.
Nearly a hundred years have passed since the post-1917 workers’ insurrections.
Until the two or three last decades of the twentieth century, most radical critique considered the working class as the social pivot and revolutionary lever (metaphors highly revealing of a mechanical age mindset). Nowadays, in contrast with the apparent simplicity of yesteryears, capitalism and contemporary struggles are said to be devoid of centrality. When most radicals speak of labour, they tend to overstretch the notion, with no significant difference between a housewife, a student and an assembly-line worker. The definition has moved from entirely positive to entirely negative: the prole is no longer the pan-creator of wealth, he or she is a lessperson: jobless, landless, powerless, propertyless, moneyless, homeless, and undocumented. As result, what is meant by class is a boundless shapeless whole, disjointed not only from the work place (which would stick to the Marxian definition: proles are at work and/or jobless), but from the world of work altogether.
This is disregarding the fact that the present world is structured by the capital/wage labour relation, even more so in the twenty-first century than the nineteenth. Work has not become inessential. We do not live in an un-structured commodified totality which everybody would be equally active in reproducing: the postal worker, the psychologist, the schoolgirl doing her homework, the forklift driver, the couple going to a show, the lawyer busy shopping… Society has a centre: production, viz. value production, more precisely surplus-value production, and first of all the production of material objects, be they T-shirts, tablets, or a VOD film bought online. This is the main point, not the proportion of factory workers in the working population, nor the evolution from an industrial to a service society.
The question is not simply to have clerks barricading the streets along factory workers, or how to connect Brazilian favelas with Chinese industrial neighbourhoods, because if each group carries on only its own specific fight, the addition won’t add up. Extending a workplace confined “class” to a quasi-universal “people” is no solution. A mere juxtaposition of urban riots, strikes, occupied squares, ecological activism, indigenous resistance, with no cross-fertilisation between these categories, with no attempt to do away with value production, to abolish work, to destroy State power, would accomplish no more than past “class alliances” (workers + farmers + intellectuals + . . .). A catch-all coalition of the deprived won’t do any better than a workers’ bloc. The issue goes deeper than the personnel of the revolution.
Neither should we be looking for safety in numbers.
No-one denies that there are fewer factory workers in Western Europe, North America, and Japan than in 1960. Still, let us not be believe that in the old industrial countries, everybody is now teaching, standing behind a shop counter, typing on a keyboard, communicating, programming… or living on the dole. Contemporary modern society is not divided between an ever-larger middle class and an ever poorer dwindling ex-working class. It is no accident that the notion of an underclass became popular at the same time as the notion of a class society fell out of fashion: whereas the working class was feared as (and was indeed) an agent of historical change, the underclass is thought of as a sad remnant of a defunct past, to be dealt with by welfare and riot police. The fading away of the proletarians is not documented by facts. In France, manual work and menial office work—jobs held by what can be called “proles”—account for about 60 percent of the working population. Besides, in the past, very few countries (Britain and Germany, for instance) ever had a majority of factory workers.
Statistics, however, do not tell the whole story. The proportion of workers is not a factor to be dismissed, but the big change resides elsewhere. For the last thirty years, west European, American, and Japanese labour has ceased to exert a major pressure on capital. This is not because they would have lost their economic function, but because they were defeated after their non-revolutionary yet militant struggle between 1960 and 1980. Indeed, it is because labour was defeated (on the shop floor and in the street) that the bourgeois were able to outsource and transfer a lot of the manufacturing. Hong Kong capitalists and mainland Chinese bureaucrats did not force their way into Western markets: Asia only became (some of ) the workshops of the world after the Western and Japanese workers had lost out in the 1960s–70s. But the game is not over.
The problem is not that in Canada or Italy the proles would now have more than “their chains to lose,” because they would be caught up in consumption and credit, and be therefore “integrated” into capitalism, whereas in Bangladesh or China the proles would have only their chains to lose and would therefore fit in with the Communist Manifesto’s definition of the revolutionary proletariat. Berlin metalworkers in 1919 enjoyed a “better” life than Lancashire textile workers in 1850, yet they rebelled against the bosses and the State. In Europe or the United States as in Asia today, the problem is the possible junction between protected labour and precarious labour, between “privileged” workers and overexploited workers. Revolution can only happen as a combination of a reaction against capitalist-induced misery and of a reaction against the riches sold by this same capitalism. Communist revolution is a joint rejection of the worst actually imposed by capitalism and of the best it offers and wants us to dream about. This fusion supposes a social context where the two types of reality, misery and wealth, coexist and face each other, so that the proletarians can attack both. This is more likely to coalesce in Denver than in Kinshasa or Dubai, or in Shanghai than in the remote corner of a Chinese province where commodity and wage-labour have not yet turned society into full-fledged capitalist relationships. (That does not mean that rural or so-called “backward” areas are further from communism than “modern” ones. In some ways, they might well be closer: as the money world has penetrated them less, they will have less to get rid of. See chap. 1, section 10).
Short and sweet, if we suppose, as we do, that communist revolution means the abolition of work as such, of the economy as such, of private property, of wage-labour, which implies the destruction of the State, some proletarians have more impact on society than others: a rail worker strike has more social leverage than a media worker strike. Yet communisation will not be achieved or “led” by factory-workers. Workers will not question work on their own: as far as we can learn from the past, nothing serious would have happened in Italy in the 1970s without mass factory stoppages, and factory-workers would not have started questioning wage-labour and work without a large deep unrest—outside the workplace—that went beyond labour issues. In those days as now, in-between categories (school-kids, casual labour, etc.), which are unstable, volatile, and more prone to rebellion, often facilitate radicalisation. Sociological barriers are divisive. Only interaction and mutual change will enable categories to overpass their respective limits by dealing with the heart of the matter. Only then will all (now distinct) dimensions converge. Otherwise the proletarians will be defeated if they fight as a collage of categories.
The current revival of worker militancy in Asia is not dissimilar from what François Martin described in chapter 2, the frequency of wildcatting particularly. However, (re)inventing forms of struggle does not necessarily provide a radically new content and perspective. As Eric Hobsbawm pointed out, rioting can be a form of collective bargaining: what the historian wrote about the Luddites can be applied to modern factory workers as well as to disenfranchised groups.5 The development of direct and bottom-up action is a symptom of a worldwide crisis in the established political and trade-union channels, yet we see mainly negative signs of anti-capitalism, and this non-acceptance disrupts the existing order with few attempts to create a new world. The undeniable fact that the unions have hardly real wind in their sails is not enough to create a qualitatively different proletarian movement.6
Up to now, the new cycle of struggles does not go beyond the limit of collective bargaining by whatever means available (“peacefully if we can, forcibly if we must,” the Chartists used to say), even when there is little to bargain.
The highest level of 1960s and ’70s radicalism could be summed up in one word: autonomy, i.e. the rejection of all mediations (State, union, party, or ideology) by a militant proletarian minority, which tried to act outside and against mediators. Thirty-five or forty years after the zenith of Italian autonomia, autonomy has become the smallest common denominator of most social movements: grassroots action, collective decision-making, maximum information circulation. With the 1999 Seattle riot, the new “struggle cycle” picked up where the former one had left off. Unfortunately, although self-activity is indeed a sine qua non component of the communist movement, it is never enough to create its content.
Let us put forward two hypotheses:
 If the signs we perceive are anything to go by, while the proletarians of the old industrial countries are fighting defensive battles (and are usually defeated), the proletarians of the emerging countries are waging militant reformist struggles, and are often successful, with hardly any convergence between the two. Besides, though the deepening of the crisis leads to multi-fold reactions to unemployment and impoverishment and a sharpening of class unrest, nothing shows that this radicalisation is taking a communist turn. There is always more than one single way out of a major crisis. Let’s remember the 1930s… We live epochal times: an epoch includes setbacks as well as advances.
 Nevertheless, as a future communist revolution would be an unprecedented phenomenon, its warning signs might well be indecipherable, even to the most farsighted, so we cannot neglect the possibility that some more or less near future would come to us as a positive surprise.
A quantum of solace: forecasters are usually wrong, radical ones no exception. In January 1917, Lenin declared: “We older men perhaps will not live to see the coming revolution.” A few weeks later, revolution broke out in Petrograd.
One last quote by Marx: “I do not claim to have discovered either the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them.”7 It is no use endlessly proving the permanence of a confrontation that is plain to see. Our concern is that it could end, by a communist revolution that has to arise in a society shaped and torn by the interaction of proletarians and bourgeois. Our “problem” is how class struggle will be able to produce something else than its own continuation. Is there a contradiction here, and a major one?
Is there a contradiction here, and a major one?
Yes. But the sole question is whether this contradiction
cannot be solved… or can be.
Up to now, most of the time, even in a combative way, proletarians have fought to improve their lot within this society: labour tries to get the most out of capital, not to abolish the labour/capital couple. Acknowledging this is a primary condition to understand what the communist movement has to face.
The proletarians are placed at the same time inside and outside capitalism, and act accordingly. They straddle two worlds: they are in this world and not of this world. The bourgeois live, prosper, and stay inside a social logic which is beneficial to them. Only the proletarians have the potential leverage to transform the present order of things…
Which does not mean that they will. Resisting oppression and exploitation is not the same as doing away with oppression and exploitation altogether. We are not dismissive about what is called cash-and-hours agenda: we just say such demands fail to bring the proletarians together. Convergence will only take place against wage-labour and the society based upon it.
There are better dreams.
- 1. For more on that period and our background, see The Story of Our Origins (translated from La Banquise, 1983), www.reocities.com/~johngray. And our What’s It All About?, 2007, http://www.troploin.fr/node/48.
- 2. Marx & Engels, Fictitious Splits in the International, 1872.
- 3. See above, chap. 5, sections 7 and 8.
- 4. Herman Gorter, Open Letter to Comrade Lenin, 1920, conclusion, https://www.marxists.org/archive/gorter/1920/open-letter/.
- 5. Eric Hobsbawm, The Machine Breakers, 1952, http://libcom.org/history/machine-breakers-eric-hobsbawm.
- 6. In the 1930s, some revolutionaries mistook the ascent of rank-and-file militancy with the emergence of an altogether different working class (Canne-Meijer, The Rise of a New Labour Movement, 1938). The proletarian surge later gave birth to the CIO’s industrial unionism, which complemented the old AFL craft unions ill-adapted to modern industry. History surely does not repeat itself, but…
- 7. Marx’s letter to J. Weydemeyer, March 5, 1852, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/letters/52_03_05-ab.htm.