The following letter is being sent to groups which will attend the conference, and to some other people in Britain and elsewhere. We wrote it as a contribution to the discussion, and hope it will be reproduced and criticised. It only gives a summary of a few essential points, which we had to over-simplify. We are fully aware of the abstract character of this text. But it is only a starting-point for further discussion. We are planning to produce a book in English with the help of Black and Red in Detroit.
One must go back to the analysis of capital to fully grasp the importance of present-day workers' struggles, and also the nature of revolutionary groups and our own problems. Revolutionary action is neither a repetition of the past, nor is it totally different from what it used to be. There is no need to dismiss relevant notions: we must understand and develop them.
Conflicts between profits and wages are only one aspect of a more general movement. Capital is an accumulation of value, i.e., of crystallised abstract labour. 1 The subversive character of the proletariat arises from the movement of valorisation and de-valorisation. Real communist theory, as expressed by Marx and later forgotten by most Marxists, including many true revolutionaries, does not separate "economics" from "class struggle." Marx's Capital destroys specialised fields of knowledge. We can see communist potentials within capitalism only if we understand modern society as a whole.
It is useless to wonder if economic crises bring about proletarian actions, or if workers' combativity creates economic difficulties. The proletariat is a commodity which tends to destroy itself as such, both because the system attacks it and because its conditions of life become unbearable. Capital tries to lower wages, and expels part of the working class from production: both tendencies are consequences of value accumulation. The proletariat is a value which can no longer exist as such.
The origin of the crisis lies neither in the exhaustion of the market, nor in increased wages, but in the decline of the rate of profit, which itself includes the action of workers. As a sum of value, capital finds it increasingly difficult to valorise itself at the average rate. Overproduction and increased wages play an important part, but they are only one moment of the process.
Revolution transforms all social elements (people, things, relationships, ideas, nature, etc.) into a community. The material basis for such a society already exists, but all of these components are still activated, controlled and socialised by value, either in the form of capital, or in the earlier form of simple commodities. The labour force is a commodity. Instead of enabling man to appropriate the world on the material, intellectual and affective levels, labour is now only a means for producing objects in order to increase value. 2 Subversion, since the time of Luddism, has been an attempt to get rid of value as a social relation. One must bear this in mind when considering unofficial strikes, riots, etc., even when these actions fail to assume and express a communist perspective.
Communism is not only a stage which will be achieved in the future: it is also the driving force behind the present movement. This helps one understand how the Watts, Detroit and Newark riots (1965-7) attacked the commodity, 3 though they did not go beyond the sphere of distribution. It also helps one understand why the UCS (Upper Clyde Shipyard) workers in Scotland were bound to fail from the start: not because their action was not organised in a democratic way, but because nothing decisive can change as long as the workers stay within the sphere of the existing production unit and its management. The proletariat remains the dominant revolutionary force, but its action goes beyond the limit of the factory. Revolution changes society as a whole.
Crises cannot be studied apart from communism, and vice-versa. This does not imply that all depressions have communist potentialities. The 1929 crash was a crisis within the existing economy and society, not a crisis of the economy and society. It occurred at a time when the active social force – the proletariat – had already been defeated. Such is not the case today. Civil war is possible from now on, even though present struggles do not show positive communist activity. A communist movement which is extreme and violent has not yet grown out of the limited situations which have taken place.
The form of the proletarian movement is always shaped by its content, by what it can actually do in a given situation. In the past, a revolution had to develop some of the foundations of communism which had not been fully created by capital. An economic and political mediation was required, as a separate organisation. 4 Socialist parties soon lost their "revolutionary" impulse. Unitary organisations were born out of a reaction against reformism: the IWW, later the AAU and AAU-E in Germany. 5 They aimed at a general gathering of radical elements and rejected interference from political groups. Their attitude was right and illusory at the same time: the limits imposed by the factory are as dangerous as those imposed by politics. When they attacked society, they were forced to take a different form, as in the Ruhr uprising (1920). Eventually they disappeared. Yet daily action for "reforms" had a revolutionary impact. Movements like the CIO were attempts to fight for workers' demands in the most uncompromising way. 6 This was the last struggle before the victory of capital during the second world war. Nowadays the situation is different. Reformism is planned by capital. The most significant strikes show that the workers strive for something other than the official demands. Unofficial organisation is not mainly a way of achieving specific demands, but a way of creating new relations for another fight, which is not yet possible. Permanent and formal organisations (both political and unitary) are no longer created, or tend to organise only organisation. Revolutionary organisation can no longer exist as such, as an instrument which will be used later. It can only be the organisation of tasks.
This phenomenon corresponds to a crisis within the movement. On the one hand, organisation is increasingly necessary; on the other, permanent and established organisations, which exist independently of their function, are either impossible or reactionary. The result is the considerable weakness of the movement, which is partly inevitable. Fifty years ago, the necessary existence of formal groups created other dangers. There is no magic formula. Our own attempt has not been totally adequate. However, the solution does not lie in a new exclusively factory-oriented attitude, but rather in the expression of the deeper aspects of the struggles. Of course we run the risk of proposing mere "principles." Abstraction is a sign of social isolation. In any case, all true revolutionaries are now working together with workers in one way or another, and many of them are workers themselves. A radical standpoint implies systematic activity in this direction, and not only "contacts."
Oppositions between bureaucracy/rank-and-file, and minority/majority, are quite real, but secondary. True, communism is the movement of the vast majority, and workers must control their action themselves. To that extent, communism is "democratic." What is wrong is to uphold democracy as a principle. The only subversive position consists of putting forward first the content of the movement, and then its forms. Bosses and union leaders take advantage of minority and majority actions when it suits them; so does the proletariat. Workers' struggles very often start from a minority action. Communism is neither the rule of a minority, nor of a majority. Either democracy works as a normal process, without being organised or even proposed; or it becomes an institution, which acts in a conservative way like all other institutions. What is basically wrong is to emphasise the moment and mechanism of decision-making.
This separation is typical of capital. 7 A radical initiative includes decisions – its own decisions – without any formal decision-making. The workers must decide for themselves: but what is a decision? It always depends on what has already happened. Whenever a revolutionary decision is reached democratically, it has been prepared previously. Whoever asks the question determines the answer; whoever organises the vote carries the decision. This is no abstraction, since this problem is present in every struggle. The revolutionary does not propose a different form of organisation, but a different solution from that of capital and the unions.
Workers' councils were a form of proletarian struggle whose communist content did not fully appear in a positive way. Even in Germany, the movement was unable to alter the social structure. "Council communism," as opposed to "party communism," emphasised the form at the expense of the content. Pannekoek's Workers' Councils defines communism as a democratic system of book-keeping and value accounting. The trouble with Cardan and Solidarity is not that they are wrong on the dynamics of capitalism, but that they choose to ignore that there is one. As early as 1926 the KAI (Communist Workers' International) described capitalism as developing into a sort of social pyramid with no class distinctions, which is a view close to Cardan's. However, the analysis of capital as value accumulation explains how competition breeds monopoly and how democracy breeds bureaucracy. Capital turns bureaucratic as a result of its own invariant laws. As principles, democracy and bureaucracy are equally wrong. Both imply a separation between decision and action. Decision becomes a seemingly "special" and privileged moment, while it is actually pre-determined. In a period when the proletariat was unable to act as a class, council communism was still positive. The fundamental contradiction did not appear. Hence, the search for another solution on a superficial level. It is now increasingly reactionary. Communism will have to defeat pseudo-workers' management (UCS), and its ideology.
Rejecting Cardan's rejection of Marx is only one step. The evolution of Socialisme ou barbarie (1949-65) was a logical process. In his earlier texts, Cardan (= Chaulieu) regards value as a mere instrument of measure, as a useful concept, not as the reality of capital. Council communism never quite saw capitalism as a social relation, but more as a management system. In Marx and Keynes, 8 Mattick interprets the analysis of value as a critique of the superficial nature of classical economics: he does not see the reality of value as a social mechanism.
There are and will be many struggles in which the communist element will remain very weak. An overly optimistic view would lead us to believe that we are on the verge of revolution, and would allow us to avoid the question of our own intervention. But one cannot assume that communism is not active in cases where it does not act positively. What radical workers do not do is just as important as what they do. Nothing efficient can be done without a clear communist perspective. The closest scrutiny of wildcat strikes or of profit rates does not lead us to understand where we are going.
Some groups are a more "direct" expression of the proletariat. Others may be more "dogmatic" as they try to grasp the whole historical movement. Origins and experiences are very different. Revolutionaries are able to understand and criticise each other. Communication is vital. Those who are only interested in theory, as well as those who are only interested in organising others' activity, stand outside the communist movement.
Le mouvement communiste
Taken from the For Communism website.
- 1. Marx, Grundrisse (Pelican Books, 1973).
- 2. Rubin, Essays on Marx's Theory of Value, Black & Red, 1972.
- 3. Situationist International, The Rise and Fall of the Spectacular Commodity Economy (1966).
- 4. Marx's Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875).
- 5. Workers' Voice, The Origin of the Movement for Workers' Councils in Germany; Aberdeen Solidarity, The KPD, 1918-24.
- 6. Root and Branch, The Sitdown Strikes of the 1930s, 1971.
- 7. Marx, Theories of Surplus-Value, Vol. I, Lawrence and Wishart, 1969, p. 409.
- 8. Porter Sargent, Boston, 1969. Reviewed in Internationalism, No. 2.