Théorie Communiste responds

The last instalment of the Théorie Communiste-Aufheben debate.

In Aufheben #11 we published a critique of our articles on ‘decadence’ (from Aufheben issues 2-4) by the French group Théorie Communiste (TC). In the following issue we published our reply to TC’s critique. Since then we have had a number exchanges with TC in which they responded to our reply. We have collected together their written responses and an edited version of them (with footnotes added by us) is presented below.

In their response TC go some way towards clarifying their theoretical positions concerning some of the main issues that have arisen out of their original critique of our ‘decadence’ articles. Yet, while their response answers some of the questions we raised regarding TC’s theory it still leaves many unanswered, notably in regard to their periodisation. And as we have already stated, we cannot accept their account of a conceptual shift in Marx’s use of the concept of alienation. (For a critique of TC on the concept of alienation in Marx see Chris Arthur here.)

Originally we had planned to publish a short introduction to TC’s response that would seek to respond in turn to the issues they raise, in particular the ‘ad hominem’ point at the end; but we were unable to come to an agreement. On top of this, some of us feel that we don’t have enough translated material to understand how the specific theoretical positions cohere within TC’s theory as a whole and how the abstract formulations with which they present their positions are theorectically grounded or result from detailed particular analyses. As a result of these difficulties we decided to draw this particular exchange with TC in the pages of Aufheben to a close by giving TC the last word.

Whatever uncertainties and disagreements we have with them, TC have raised important questions and we hope to take some of these questions up in future issues of Aufheben.

After reading your text on TC in Aufheben #12, and assuming a good linguistic understanding on my part, it would seem that you raise three points on which we diverge, or on which additional work is required by TC in order to justify our analyses:

1) Doesn’t the proletariat have to recognise itself as a class before abolishing itself?
2) The foundation of the possibility of a second phase of real subsumption in the concepts of capital and real subsumption.
3) The concept of alienation.

I have deliberately left the question of Althusser to one side. To approach this question in its own right would, on both sides, only lead us up a blind alley. However interesting it could be to examine and criticise Althusser’s positions on a number of questions, to pose Althusser as the subject in his own right would ensnare us in our discussions, as he would become the positive or negative referent of the questions that we want to deal with. These questions would be transformed by making Althusser the point of reference.

1) Doesn’t the proletariat have to recognise itself as a class before abolishing itself?

To put it briefly, we define the current cycle of struggles as a situation where the proletariat only exists as a class in its contradictory relation to capital, which precludes any confirmation of a workers’ identity or any ‘return to itself’ in its opposition to capital; the contradiction with capital is for the proletariat a contradiction it faces with itself, a situation in which it calls itself into question.

The proletariat doesn’t become a ‘purely negative’ being as a result of this, except if we understand by this the critique of any conception of a revolutionary nature of the proletariat. We pass from a perspective where the proletariat finds in itself and in its opposition to capital its capacity to produce communism, to a perspective where this capacity is only acquired as an internal movement of that whose abolition it enables. Such an abolition thus becomes a historical process: the development of the relation and not the triumph of one of its terms in the form of its generalisation. The proletariat only produces communism in (and through) the course of the contradiction with capital and not in itself, emancipating itself from capital or revealing itself against it. There is no subversive being of the proletariat. If the negation is an internal moment of what is negated, the supersession is a development of the contradiction; it is not the revelation or actualisation of a revolutionary nature, but an internal historical production.

As the dissolution of the existing conditions, the proletariat is defined as a class within capital and in its relation with it, that is to say as the class of value producing labour and more precisely surplus-value producing labour. It is not as the dissolution of these categories that the proletariat poses itself as a class, is constituted as a class; rather it is as a class that the proletariat is this dissolution; this is the very content of its objective situation as a class. Its capacity to abolish capital and produce communism lies in its condition as class of the capitalist mode of production. The dissolution of all existing conditions is a class, it is living labour in opposition to capital. What has disappeared in the current crisis/restructuring is not this objective existence; it is the confirmation within the reproduction of capital of a proletarian identity. Exploitation simultaneously defines the proletariat as the class of surplus-value producing labour and as the dissolution of all existing conditions on the basis of these conditions, within the dynamic of the capitalist mode of production (understood as class struggle). The proletariat’s capacity to bring about the abolition of the capitalist mode of production is contained in its strict situation as a class of this mode of production.

When we say that the proletariat only exists as a class within and against capital, that it produces its entire being, all its organisation, reality and constitution as a class in and against capital, we are merely stating that it is the class of surplus-value producing labour. As the class of productive labour, the proletariat constantly recognises itself as such in the course of any given struggle, the most immediate effect of which is always the social polarisation of classes.

The simplest things are often the most difficult to understand. A class recognises itself as a class through its relation to another class; a class only exists to the extent that it has to wage a struggle against another class. A class has no prior definition explaining and producing its contradiction with another class; it is only in the contradiction with another class that it recognises itself as a class. What disappears in the current cycle of struggles is the ability of this general relationship which defines classes to comprise a moment of return-to-self for the proletariat in the form of a definition of its own identity which it could oppose to capital (an identity which seemed inherent to the class and opposable to capital, when in fact it was nothing other than the particular product of a certain historical relation between the proletariat and capital, confirmed by the specific movement of capital). The proletariat does not become a ‘purely negative being’; it is simply a class.

There exists an old framework that we have great difficulty in discarding: the confusion between the positive recognition of the proletariat as class and the particular historical forms of self-organisation and autonomy. In its struggles the proletariat assumes all the forms of organisation necessary for its action. But does this mean that when the proletariat assumes the organisational forms necessary for its immediate goals (communisation will equally be an immediate goal) it exists for itself as an autonomous class? No.

Self-organisation and union power belonged to the same world of the revolution as affirmation of the class. Self-organisation or the autonomy of the proletariat are not stronger or weaker constant tendencies in the class struggle, but determinate historical forms that it has taken. We can remove all content from these forms and call self-organisation any group of people deciding in common what they are going to do, but in this case all human activity is self-organisation and the term no longer carries any interest. Self-organisation and its content, workers’ autonomy, arose from a contradiction between the proletariat and capital containing the capacity for the proletariat to relate to itself as class in its opposition to capital, that is to say a specific relation in which the proletariat was able to find in itself its foundation, its own constitution, its own reality, on the basis of a workers’ identity which the modalities of the reproduction of capital had long been confirming. For the theories of self-organisation and of autonomy, it was a question of making the link between immediate struggles and the revolution via those elements in the struggles which could manifest a rupture with the integration of a defence and reproduction of the proletarian condition: the conquest of its identity autonomous from capital, autonomous from the political and union forms of this integration. Self-organisation and autonomy were only possible on the basis of the constitution of a workers’ identity, a constitution which restructuring has swept aside.

It is the proletariat’s very ability to find in its relation to capital the basis for constituting itself as an autonomous class which has disappeared. The particularisation of the valorisation process, the ‘big factory’, the submission of fixed capital to the requirements of massified labour, the division between productive and unproductive activities, between production and unemployment, production and training…etc., all that which is superseded by the current restructuring, was the substance, at the very interior of the capitalist relation, of a proletarian identity and autonomy. Self-organisation and autonomy are not constants whose reappearance could be awaited with more or less patience; rather they constitute a completed cycle of struggle. For there to be self-organisation and autonomy it is necessary for there to be a self-affirmation of the productive class in opposition to capital. Today self-organisation and autonomy have paradoxically become the preserve of groups and militants (cf the clear evolution in France starting with the struggles in the steel industry in 1979) and above all of ‘radical unions’. As a result the standard bearers of self-organisation have been reduced to opposing a ‘pure’ self-organisation (i.e. one which is confused with the struggle) to any fossilisation or union development of this. But in the real process of self-organisation there was always a constant evolution towards this fossilisation and unionisation; it is intrinsic to the type of contradiction which expresses itself in self-organisation as well as to the defence of the proletarian condition which constituted its unsurpassable limit. That self-organisation which in its purity is confused with the struggle has never existed. It is nothing other than an abstract ideology of the real course of struggles.

The class struggle in general is not autonomous. The fact that the actors in a struggle don’t delegate to anyone else the task of determining the conduct of their struggle is not ‘autonomy’, rather it means that capitalist society is composed of contradictory interests and of forms of representation which in themselves reproduce the social relations which are being struggled against; it is to have an activity which defines the others or the constraints to be defined; it means that the group in struggle or the fraction of the class, or the class in its entirety, don’t have their own definition in and of themselves, in some inherent way, but that this definition is the ensemble of social relations. Finally it means considering society as organic totality and activity. Autonomy supposes that the social definition of a group is inherent to that group, almost natural, and to the relations defined in the course of struggle with other similarly defined groups. Where there is organism, it sees only addition; where there is activity and relation, it sees only object and nature.

We can only talk of autonomy if the working class is capable of relating to itself in opposition to capital and of finding in this relation with itself the bases and the capacity for its affirmation as the dominant class. It comes down to a formalisation of what we are in present society, which then becomes the basis of the new society to be constructed as the liberation of what we are. The relations of production consequently only appear as a constraint.

It isn’t the decline of workers’ struggles or their current essentially ‘defensive’ character which explains the decline of autonomy; rather this is explained by their transformation, their inscription in a new relation to capital. In the current struggles, whether they are ‘defensive’ or ‘offensive’ (a distinction linked to the problematic of the increase in strength of the class, and for which the ‘evidence’ would have to be criticised), the proletariat recognises capital as its raison d’être, as its existence standing opposite itself, as the only necessity of its own existence. From the moment where the class struggle is situated on the level of reproduction, the proletariat finds itself in any given struggle unable and unwilling to remain what it is. This isn’t necessarily a question of startling declarations or ‘radical’ actions, but rather of all the practices which proletarians use to ‘escape’ or deny their own condition: the suicidal struggles at Cellatex1, the strike at Vilvoorde2, and many others where it is immediately apparent that the proletariat is nothing separate from capital and that it cannot remain nothing (that it demands to be reunited with capital neither fills in the abyss opened up by the struggle, nor suppresses the recognition and refusal on the part of the proletariat of itself as this abyss).

Theories of self-organisation or autonomy identify the being of the working class in the capitalist mode of production as the content of communism. It is ‘enough’ to liberate this being from the alien domination of capital (alien, since the proletariat is autonomous). Autonomy in itself fixes the revolution as affirmation of labour and defines the communist reorganisation of relations between individuals on this basis. Most critiques of self-organisation remain formal critiques, they merely state: self-organisation isn’t ‘good in itself’ but is only the form of organisation of a struggle, it is the content which counts. This criticism fails to pose the question of the form itself, and does not consider this form to be a content, nor significant in itself.

If autonomy disappears as a perspective it is because the revolution can only have the communisation of society as its content, that is to say the abolition of the proletariat. With such a content, it becomes inappropriate to speak of autonomy and it is unlikely that such a programme would involve what is commonly understood as ‘autonomous organisation’. The proletariat ‘recognises itself as class’, it recognises itself in this way in every conflict and even more so in a situation where its existence as a class is the situation it will have to confront. It is the content of this ‘recognition’ that must not be mistaken, nor must we continue to envisage it using categories from the old cycle as if these proceeded from themselves as natural forms of the class struggle. For the proletariat to recognise itself as a class won’t be to ‘return to itself’, rather it will be a total extroversion in recognising itself as a category of the capitalist mode of production. In the conflict this ‘recognition’ will in fact be a practical knowledge of capital.

2) The foundation of the possibility of a second phase of real subsumption in the concept of capital and real subsumption.

The current restructuring is a second phase of the real subsumption of labour under capital. We will explain ourselves briefly here with canonical Marxian references on the subject from Capital, from the Grundrisse, from the Missing Sixth Chapter. We can’t amalgamate or put on the same level absolute surplus-value and formal subsumption, or relative surplus-value and real subsumption. That is to say we can’t confuse a conceptual determination of capital and a historical configuration. Relative surplus-value is the principle unifying the two phases of real subsumption. In this manner real subsumption has a history because it has a dynamic principle which forms it, makes it evolve, poses certain forms of the process of valorisation or circulation as fetters and transforms them. Relative surplus-value, which affects the work process and all social combinations of the relation between the proletariat and capital, and consequently the relation between capitals, is what allows a continuity to be posed between the phases of real subsumption.

The first point then is to avoid amalgamating the forms of extraction of surplus-value and the historical configurations which relate to the concepts of formal and real subsumption. The second point consists of seeing the difference in the relation between absolute surplus-value and formal subsumption on the one hand and between relative surplus-value and real subsumption on the other. It is contained in the concept itself that the extraction of surplus-value in its absolute mode can be understood only on the level of the work process. Capital takes over an existing labour process which it lengthens and intensifies; at most it is content to regroup the workers. The relation between the extraction of surplus-value in its relative mode and real subsumption is much more complex. We can’t be satisfied with defining real subsumption only on the level of transformations of the labour process. In fact for the introduction of machines to be synonymous with the growth in surplus-value in its relative mode, the increase in productivity which this introduction causes would have to affect the goods entering into the consumption of the working class. This necessitates the disappearance of small-scale agriculture, and capital’s hold over Department 2 of production (that of means of consumption). This occurs, in its evolution, well after the introduction of machines in the labour process. But even this capitalist development in Department 2 must not be seized upon without reservations. In fact French and even English textile production at the beginning of the 19th century was mostly not destined for workers’ consumption, but was sold on rural markets (and so depended on agricultural cycles), on the urban middle class market, or for export (cf. Rosier and Dockés, Rythmes économiques and Braudel and Labrousse, Histoire économique et sociale de la France, vol. 2). The extraction of relative surplus-value affects all social combinations, from the labour process to the political forms of workers’ representation, passing through the integration of the reproduction of labour-power in the cycle of capital, the role of the credit system, the constitution of a specifically capitalist world market (not only merchant capitalist), the subordination of science (this subsumption of society occurs at different rhythms in different countries; historically Britain played a pioneer role). Real subsumption is a transformation of society and not of the labour process alone.

We can only speak of real subsumption at the moment when all social combinations are affected. The process whereby totality is affected has its own criterion. Real subsumption becomes an organic system; that is to say it proceeds from its own presuppositions in order to create from itself the organs which are necessary to it; this is how it becomes a totality. Real subsumption conditions itself, whereas formal subsumption transforms and models a pre-existing social and economic fabric according to the interests and needs of capital.

This allows us to introduce a third point: the real subsumption of labour (and thus of society) under capital is by its nature always unfinished. It is in the nature of real subsumption to reach points of rupture because real subsumption overdetermines the crises of capital as an unfinished quality of capitalist society. This was the case in the creation by capital of the specific organs and modalities of the absorption of social labour-power of the first phase of real subsumption. Real subsumption is by nature a perpetual self-construction punctuated by crises; the principle of this self-construction resides in its basic principle, the extraction of surplus-value in its relative mode. But even if the current restructuring can be considered to have been acomplished, it is a defining element of the period. Restructuring will never be complete in the sense that the policies of restructuring are exhausted. On the contrary they will be pursued in a sustained manner, the ‘[neo-]liberal offensive’ won’t stop, it will always have new rigidities to overturn. It is the same for world capitalist integration which constantly has to be redefined by pressures between allies and policing military interventions.

This permanent self-construction of real subsumption is entailed by in the extraction of surplus-value in its relative mode. From this point of view the axes which brought about the fall in the rate of profit in the previous phase offer us a vision of the elements which capital had to abolish, transform, or supersede in the restructuring. It is from relative surplus-value that we must start in order to understand how the first phase of real subsumption enters into crisis at the beginning of the 1970s. What was constituted in its interior as a fetter to it?

In this restructuring, the contradiction which the old cycle of struggles had thrown up is abolished and superseded – that is the contradiction between, on the one hand, labour-power created, reproduced and instrumentalised by capital in a collective and social manner, and, on the other, the forms of appropriation of this labour-power by capital, whether in the immediate production process (the assembly line, the system of the ‘big factory’), in the process of reproduction of labour-power (welfare) or in the relation between capitals (national areas of capital distribution [péréquation]). This was the situation of conflict which manifested itself as workers’ identity confirmed in the very reproduction of capital. It was the architectural separation between the integration of the reproduction of labour-power and the transformation of surplus-value into additional capital and finally the increase in surplus-value in its relative mode, which became a fetter on valorisation on the basis of relative surplus-value. This means ultimately the way in which capital, as organic system, constituted itself as society.

This non-coincidence between production and reproduction was the basis of the formation and confirmation within the reproduction of capital of a workers’ identity. Workers’ identity allowed for a hiatus between the production of surplus-value and the reproduction of the social relation, a hiatus enabling competition between two hegemonies, two forms of management, two forms of control of reproduction. For relative surplus value and its three definitive determinations (the labour process, the integration of the reproduction of labour-power, the distribution of the total capital [péréquation]) to be adequate to each other, there necessarily has to be a coincidence between production and reproduction; as a corollary, this necessarily implies a coalescence between the constitution and the reproduction of the proletariat as class on the one side and its contradiction with capital on the other.

It is clear that the passage from one phase of real subsumption to another cannot have the same amplitude as the passage from formal to real subsumption, but we can’t be satisfied with merely positing a continuity between the two phases of real subsumption; a process of revelation to capital of its own truth. The change would then merely be the elimination of archaisms; the transformation would only be formal in this case, fundamentally changing nothing of the contradiction between proletariat and capital. Even the very notion of a crisis between the two phases would disappear. We wouldn’t be passing from one particular configuration of the contradiction to another, and the notion of restructuring would disappear by the same count.

It will however be necessary to take all this up again in the much more ‘empirical’ way called for by your pertinent remarks on the periodisation presented by TC. You raise, amongst other problems, a question that we had completely left to one side, namely that of the criterion for the dominance of a mode of valorisation of capital. I haven’t got a categorical response to give you. I think that it is necessary, of course, to take into account a study of the labour processes, but, as I attempt to show in my response, that can’t be sufficient. I think that as far as real subsumption is concerned, the criterion for its dominance has to be sought out in the modalities of reproduction of labour-power (social and political modalities): social welfare systems, the invention of the category of the unemployed, the importance of trade unionism, etc. All this naturally accompanies the transformations in the labour process: the decline of handicrafts and domestic industry caused by the first phase of large-scale industry. In order for there to be real subsumption, according to my view, modalities of reproduction of labour-power must be created which are adequate to the transformations accomplished in the labour process. That is to say those modalities which ensure (and confirm) that labour-power no longer has any possible ‘ways out’ of its exchange with capital in the framework of this specifically capitalist labour process.

Some quotations, not so as to claim any orthodoxy, but to illustrate my thesis.

For capitalist relations to establish themselves at all presupposes that a certain historical level of social production has been attained. Even within the framework of an earlier mode of production certain needs and certain means of communication and production must have developed which go beyond the old relations of production and coerce them into the capitalist mould. But for the time being they need to be developed only to the point that permits the formal subsumption of labour under capital. On the basis of that change, however, specific changes in the mode of production are introduced which create new forces of production, and these in turn influence the mode of production so that new real conditions come into being. Thus a complete economic revolution is brought about. On the one hand, it creates the real conditions for the domination of labour for capital, perfecting the process and providing it with the appropriate framework. On the other hand, by evolving conditions of production and communication and productive forces of labour antagonistic to the workers involved in them, this revolution creates the real premises of a new mode of production, one that abolishes the contradictory form of capitalism. It thereby creates the material basis of a newly shaped social process and hence of a new social formation. (Missing Sixth Chapter p.1064, my italics)

It must be kept in mind that the new forces of production and relations of production do not develop out of nothing, nor drop from the sky, nor from the womb of the self-positing Idea; but from within and in antithesis to the existing development of production and the inherited, traditional relations of property. While in the completed bourgeois system every economic relation presupposes every other in its bourgeois economic form, and everything posited is thus also a presupposition, this is the case with every organic system. This organic system itself, as a totality, has its presuppositions, and its development to its totality consists precisely in subordinating all elements of society to itself, or in creating out of it the organs which it still lacks. This is historically how it becomes a totality. (Grundrisse p.278)

If we consider bourgeois society as a whole, society always appears as the last result of the process, i.e. man in his social relations.’ (Grundrisse - quote translated from french)

It seems to me that it is not possible to understand the real subsumption of labour under capital without considering that what occurs in the labour process only resolves itself outside of it. Capital, as society (in the sense that the two preceding quotes seek to define), is a perpetual work of the formation of its inherent contradictions at the level of its reproduction which undergoes phases of profound mutations. It is possible to go so far as to say that the real subsumption of labour under capital is defined as capital becoming capitalist society, i.e. presupposing itself in its evolution and in the creation of its organs. It is for this reason that real subsumption is a historical period whose indicative historical limits can be fixed. Beyond this, as you emphasise, there will always be transformations, but these are made on the achieved basis of capitalist society which is implied in the very concept of the extraction of surplus value in its relative form.

Finally, for the sake of argument if I were to accept all your criticisms of the utilisation we make of the concept of real subsumption and we were to abandon, for the period which has opened up, the denomination ‘second phase of real subsumption’, that would change a lot of things, but not the essential content of what we are saying: there has been a restructuring of the relation of exploitation, of the contradiction between proletariat and capital. That is what is essential, and this is what must be discussed.

3) On alienation

It’s clear that we often mean the same thing by the different terms ‘alienation’ and ‘exploitation’: the subsumption of labour under capital, reciprocal implication, the self-presupposition of capital. My critique of the concept of alienation is not a ‘war’ on the utilisation of the term; we in TC use the term ourselves, and in Critical Foundations… I use the concept of alienated labour or the alienation of labour. My critique bears explicitly upon the Hegelian or Feuerbachian usage of the concept that quickly pollutes it.

You draw out in pertinent fashion the numerous utilisations of the concept of alienation in the Grundrisse, the Missing Sixth Chapter, etc. I maintain however that it is not the same concept as in the 1844 Manuscripts. Whereas in the Manuscripts the concept of alienation is the very explanatory dynamic of the reality it is given the job of explaining, in the texts you cite alienation is the thing that is being explained. It is submitted to the concept of the capitalist mode of production; we are far from the total explanatory power of ‘alienated labour’ of the 1844 Manuscripts:

To the extent that, from the standpoint of capital and wage labour, the creation of the objective body of activity happens in antithesis to the immediate labour capacity -- that this process of objectification in fact appears as a process of dispossession from the standpoint of labour or as appropriation of alien labour from the standpoint of capital -- to that extent, this twisting and inversion [Verdrehung und Verkehrung] is a real [phenomenon], not a merely supposed one existing merely in the imagination of the workers and the capitalists. But obviously this process of inversion is a merely historical necessity, a necessity for the development of the forces of production solely from a specific historic point of departure, or basis (Grundrisse p.831-832).

Alienation is no longer the primary concept in which all the others have their origin; this concept rather results from the production relation of capital, and not the inverse:

Thus, the question whether capital is productive or not is absurd. Labour itself is productive only if absorbed into capital, where capital forms the basis of production, and where the capitalist is therefore in command of production. The productivity of labour becomes the productive force of capital just as the general exchange value of commodities fixes itself in money. Labour, such as it exists for itself in the worker in opposition to capital, that is, labour in its immediate being, separated from capital, is not productive. Nor does it ever become productive as an activity of the worker so long as it merely enters the simple, only formally transforming process of circulation. Therefore, those who demonstrate that the productive force ascribed to capital is a displacement, a transposition of the productive force of labour, forget precisely that capital itself is essentially this displacement, this transposition, and that wage labour as such presupposes capital, so that, from its standpoint as well, capital is this transubstantiation; the necessary process of positing its own powers as alien to the worker.’ (Grundrisse, p.308).

Let’s compare with the Manuscripts:

We have considered the act of estrangement of practical human activity, of labour, from two aspects: (1) the relationship of the worker to the product of labour as an alien object that has power over him. (…) (2) The relationship of labour to the act of production within labour. This relationship is the relationship of the worker to his own activity as something which is alien and does not belong to him … (1844 Manuscripts, p.327).

It is true that we took the concept of alienated labour (alienated life) from political economy as a result of the movement of private property. But it is clear from an analysis of this concept that, although private property appears as the basis and cause of alienated labour, it is in fact its consequence, just as the gods were originally not the cause but the effect of the confusion in men's minds. Later, however, this relationship becomes reciprocal. It is only when the development of private property reaches its ultimate point of culmination that this, its secret, re-emerges; namely, that is (a) the product of alienated labour, and (b) the means through which labour is alienated, the realization of this alienation.’ (1844 Manuscripts, p. 332).

I know I’m only dealing with a translation, but supposing it is a correct one, the pronominal form in ‘labour alienates itself’ constitutes it as the creative power of social relations, which confirms the ‘realization’ which follows in the sentence.

I won’t complicate things with long commentaries. It seems to me that from one text to the other, we are no longer talking about the same thing. In the Manuscripts, alienation is the first principle, and is explanatory, because the reference is the becoming of the human essence (its loss etc.). In the other texts alienation is itself explained by the relations of production, it describes a situation. In the quotes from the Grundrisse, the alienation of labour exists in the production relation of capital. It is not alienated labour, manifestation of man turning against him, which creates this relation; we have two real poles which confront each other and not only one, a labour which alienates itself ‘within itself’. In the Grundrisse there are classes which are real subjects confronting each other in their reciprocal implication. In the Manuscripts, there are no classes and no reciprocal implication, but a subject which divides itself.

It is significant that you yourselves return to the search for this single subject which divides itself: ‘Capital then is not just objectivised labour, both ‘objectivised labour’ and subjective labour without objectivity are socially created forms into which the unity of the social individual is split [my emphasis]’ (Aufheben 12 p.41); ‘In the alienation the subject exists on both sides as proletariat and as capital for capital is in a real sense simply the alienated powers of humanity.’ (ibid. p.42 my emphasis). Revolution is then: ‘a uniting of the fragmented social individual’ (ibid. p.43). From this it follows that classes are the schism of a single subject.

It seems to me that you’ve got yourselves into a bit of a mess with this ‘return to self of the subject’. You say: ‘In a sense the subject who returns to itself is humanity not the proletariat, but this is a humanity that didn’t exist before the alienation; it has come to be through alienation. […] Thus the subject is not the proletariat nor a pre-existing humanity; the subject does not exist yet apart from the fragmented social individual produced in capitalism’ (ibid. p.43). In a word, this means that alienation produces the subject that alienates itself – a tautology – but furthermore we have a right to ask ourselves what is this alienation which does the producing? Having no pre-existing subject, it is alienation itself that becomes subject. In no speculative theory of alienation do we encounter a pre-existing subject (i.e. one having existed concretely and historically – the fables of ‘primitive communism’ are pretty much out of fashion now) that alienates itself, but instead what we have is schism as its own movement. This movement is the unity that subsumes the elements that are divided. This is precisely where we have the whole speculative character of the concept. You write: ‘The humanity from which we are alienated is a humanity which is not yet.’(ibid.). The formulation is quite obscure to me. How can a thing that doesn’t exist yet be a manifestation of myself that is currently alien to me? If such a thing is possible, it’s because this thing which doesn’t exist does actually exist: ‘There is a coming to be of humanity through alienation.’ (ibid.). It doesn’t exist, but it does nevertheless because it is already the existing raison d’être of its becoming.

The cornerstone of such a construction resides in the following formulation: ‘The human essence for the Marx of the 1844 Manuscripts is not a generic category, it is not fixed - it becomes. The human essence is outside the individual, in the historically determined social relations that he is immersed in.’ (ibid. p.42). A first remark without great importance: it doesn’t seem so obvious to me that the human essence isn’t a generic category in the Manuscripts. The passage which begins ‘man is a generic being because etc. etc.’ doesn’t seem to me to confirm this affirmation. But what is most important in these few lines is the double affirmation that they contain. On the one hand you say ‘the human essence is not fixed’, it becomes; on the other hand, ‘the human essence is in social relations (…) it is immersed in them’ (assuming a correct translation on our part3). You don’t say without further ado ‘the human essence is the ensemble of social relations’. We have something which is in the process of becoming, some thing which is ‘in’, something which is ‘immersed’. Something is still ‘in the process of becoming’ within something else, even if this ‘something else’ is merely the form that it momentarily takes on.

This formulation of ‘the historical essence’, of ‘the essence as a process of becoming’ turns to dust as soon as it is uttered.

What we have here is the conception according to which the human essence, instead of being fixed, is identical to the historical process, understood as man’s self-creation in time. It is not a question of an abstract ontology (Feuerbach) but of a phylogenesis. 4 That doesn’t prevent it, like any phylogenesis, from relating back to and being in conflict with an ontology.

The simple fact of conceiving historical development as human essence (in general this proposition is presented the other way round – the human essence as historical becoming – whereby it appears less speculative) supposes that the a priori categories of this essence have been defined (if we say that these categories are given by history, then we are just going round in a circle). Such categories are realized, even if we stretch subtlety to the point of saying that they only exist in realizing themselves, i.e. as history. Here of course it is a matter of the definition of man as generic being and of the attributes of this being: universality, consciousness, freedom. The human essence is no longer abstract, in the sense that it is now formed and defined outside of its being and of its existence, but that doesn’t prevent it from only functioning in its identity with history by assuming that it has within it a hard core of categories which form the basis, like it or not, of an ontology. This essence that is identical to history functions upon the binary: substance (the hard core) and tendency. The tendency is merely the retrospective abstraction of the result to which the hard core cannot escape bringing us. Thus the essence that is identical to history necessarily produces a teleology, in other words the disappearance of history.

The teleological development is contained within the very premises. The point of departure, given in the notion of generic being and in its attributes, is the problematic of subject and object, of thought and being, which is at the foundations of all philosophy. This means that we can give whatever answer imaginable, but it is in the question that the mystification resides. If we accord primacy to the subject we are ‘idealist’, if we accord it to the object (nature in the philosophical sense) we are ‘materialist’. Feuerbach, and following him Marx in the Manuscripts, attempts to go beyond this alternative in the name of ‘concrete humanism’ or ‘naturalism’. Hence the definition that Marx provides in the 1844 Manuscripts:

Man is directly a natural being. As a natural being, and as a living natural being, he is on the one hand equipped with natural powers, with vital powers, he is an active natural being; these powers exist in him as dispositions and capacities, as drives. On the other hand, as a natural, corporeal, sensuous, objective being, he is a suffering, conditioned, and limited being, like animals and plants. That is to say, the objects of his drives exist outside him as objects independent of him; but these objects are objects of his need, essential objects, indispensable to the exercise and confirmation of his essential powers. To say that man is a corporeal, living, real, sensuous, objective being with natural powers means that he has real, sensuous objects as the object of his being and of his vital expression, or that he can only express his life in real, sensuous objects (…) A being which does not have its nature outside itself is not a natural being and plays no part in the system of nature. A being which has no object outside itself is not an objective being. A being which is not itself an object for some third being has no being for its object, i.e., it is not objectively related. Its being is not objective. A non-objective being is a non-being. (op.cit., p389-90).

However Marx does not take this fused identity of subject and object, this consubstantiality, as something given, but as something historical. This is what the famous passage in the Manuscripts on ‘the human eye’ indicates, a passage directly lifted from a paragraph in The Philosophy of the Future by Feuerbach, who simply stated: ‘the object of the eye is light and not sound or smell, it is through this object that the eye reveals its essence to us.’ It is the application of this basic principle: the object of a being is its essence, whereby its being – the conditions of existence of the essence – is its essence, which Marx criticizes in The German Ideology as an apology for the existing state of things. However (second ‘however’ which brings us back to the subject-object which is identical in itself of the previous paragraph, only enriched), this historical becoming is nothing but an optical illusion. In fact the becoming is a becoming adequate.

The identity of subject and object which is in itself (the very definition of the subject) can’t help but become a coincidence for itself (alienation is the middle term).

But man is not only a natural being; he is a human natural being; i.e., he is a being for himself and hence a species-being, as which he must confirm and realize himself both in his being and in his knowing. Consequently, human objects are not natural objects as they immediately present themselves, nor is human sense, in its immediate and objective existence, human sensibility and human objectivity. Neither objective nor subjective nature is immediately present in a form adequate to the human being. And as everything natural must come into being, so man also has his process of origin in history. But for him history is a conscious process, and hence one which consciously superseded itself. History is the true natural history of man. (We shall return to this later.) (Marx, 1844 Manuscripts, p.391). 5

Fortunately he returned to his senses and so never had to return to it later. We have here an identical subject-object, but as a natural human being. This identical subject-object can only immediately be identical in itself; as human, this natural being is a generic being, i.e. it takes itself as object. It follows that the object which defines it in itself in their identity, must become ‘in and for itself’. We can easily recognise here the schema of The Phenomenology of Spirit. The subject is at first identical with its object, as exterior object (consciousness as knowledge of an exterior object: consciousness); next, the subject as its own object (consciousness as the very knowledge of myself: self-consciousness); finally, the subject is identical to its exterior object and to itself in this object (consciousness as knowledge of thought, something which is at the same time objective and interior: reason). History, then, is but a middle term, a moment posited a priori in the definition of the human essence; it is thus obvious that this human essence is the becoming to the extent that it is in fact the becoming which is part of the human essence, and which is already posited in it.

There is a text by Marcuse which illustrates this difficulty particularly well: New Sources on the Foundation of Historical Materialism6 published in 1932 (after his discovery of the Manuscripts):

For Marx, essence and factuality, the situation of essential history and the situation of factual history [i.e. the development of the essence of man and the succession of social forms, a distinction that Marx consigns to the dustbin of history in The German Ideology, by showing that the first term is nothing other than the philosophical vision of the second – author’s note] are precisely not separate regions or levels, independent of each other: the historicity of man is included in his essential determination… But the knowledge of the historicity of historical existence in no way identifies the essential history of man with his factual history. We have already seen that man is not immediately ‘one with his activity’, but that he ‘distinguishes’ himself from it, that he ‘has a relation’ to it. In his case, essence and existence separate themselves: his existence is a ‘means’ of the realisation of his essence, or, in the case of alienation, his being is a means of his simple physical existence. If essence and existence are separate at this point, and if their reunification as de facto realisation is the truly free mission of human praxis, then, to the extent that factuality has installed itself to the point of completely perverting the human essence, the radical suppression of this factuality is the absolute mission. It is precisely the unfailing consideration of the essence of man which becomes the implacable motor of the justification of the radical revolution: it is not only a question of an economic or political crisis [written in 1932 – author’s note] in the factual situation of capitalism, but also of a catastrophe of the human essence. To understand this is to condemn to failure in advance and without reservation any purely economic or political reform and to demand unconditionally the catastrophic suppression of the factual status quo by total revolution.

Such a discourse constantly contradicts itself. The historicity of the human essence (and its alienation) is belied by the unfailing consideration of ‘the essence of man’, which is the raison d’être of its historicity (a veritable contradiction in terms) and to which we are constantly referred back, as if to an ultimate standard.

This conception of the human essence as historical becoming leads you to a reading that I absolutely do not share of the quotation you take from the Missing Sixth Chapter:‘This is exactly the same relation in the sphere of material production, in the real social life process — for this is the production process — as is represented by religion in the ideological sphere: the inversion of the subject into the object and vice versa. Looked at historically this inversion appears as the point of entry necessary in order to enforce, at the expense of the majority, the creation of wealth as such, i.e. the ruthless development of the productive powers of social labour, which alone can form the material basis for a free human society. It is necessary to pass through this antagonistic form, just as man had first to shape his spiritual forces in a religious form, as powers independent of him.‘ (p.990). If one wishes to talk, as you do, of this text in terms of ‘the necessity of alienation’, then the question must be asked of the status of this necessity. In this quote, the question doesn’t relate back to that of the Manuscripts. The question of ‘the necessity of alienation’ in the Manuscripts revolves around: how (and what’s worse, why) does labour come to alienate itself? Here, in the Missing Sixth Chapter, the question is one of how this epoch of capital produces its own disappearance. We have passed from a speculative question to a historical one. Not to see this difference means that the course of history, which is properly understood as production, is only understood as a realization.

I don’t understand why you didn’t continue the quote from the Missing Sixth Chapter that you put forward, because what follows seems initially to back up your thesis remarkably well.

It is the alienation process of his own labour. To that extent, the worker here stands higher than the capitalist from the outset, in that the latter is rooted in that alienation process and finds in it his absolute satisfaction, whereas the worker, as its victim, stands from the outset in a relation of rebellion towards it and perceives it as a process of enslavement.’ (Missing Sixth Chapter, p. 990).

These few lines seem to be reminiscent of the famous paragraph from the Holy Family that you cite elsewhere. But, here too, let us compare. The ‘process of the alienation of labour’ (Missing Sixth Chapter) comes to replace ‘the same alienation of man’ (Holy Family); the capitalist is ‘plunged into a process of alienation’ (Missing Sixth Chapter), whereas previously it was a question of his ‘alienation of himself’ (Holy Family) through which he was to acquire ‘the illusion of a human existence’ (Holy Family); the workers in the Missing Sixth Chapter are ‘victims’, ‘in a situation of rebellion’, as if in ‘slavery’, whereas in the Holy Family, the ‘proletarian class’ found in alienation ‘the reality of an inhuman existence’ or ‘the contradiction which exists between his human nature and his real condition which is the frank, categorical, total negation of this nature’; all this is replaced by the simple situation of the worker who is ‘victim’ and rebels because he is in this situation. In the Missing Sixth Chapter, the text continues as follows: ‘…the capitalist is just as enslaved to capital [because his obsession is the self-valorisation of capital – author’s note] as the worker at the opposite pole’. Here, the common ‘enslavement to capital’ has replaced ‘the same alienation of man’. I won’t comment on the explicit reference to Hegel which is made in the Holy Family, I think that the simple comparison of the two texts, which freely echo each other in obvious fashion, is sufficient for my exposition.

I will now place the quotation you make of the Missing Sixth Chapter in relation to another from the same work:

The view outlined here diverges sharply from the one current among bourgeois economists imprisoned within capitalist ways of thought. Such thinkers do indeed realize how production takes place within capitalist relations. But they do not understand how these relations are themselves produced, together with the material preconditions of their dissolution. They do not see, therefore, that their historical justification as a necessary form of economic development and of the production of social wealth may be undermined. (op. cit., p. 1065).

‘Necessity’, ‘historical justification’, ‘production of the supersession’, the terms are still there, but no longer any trace of the ‘facts without necessity’ (1844 Manuscripts) to be transcended by the concepts of Labour or Man. We are now dealing with a completely different problematic. Capital itself suppresses its own historical signification: therein lies all the difference. And when, in the new cycle of struggles, this movement is the structure and the content of the very contradiction between proletariat and capital, it is all the ideologies which were still able to support and understand this movement as alienation which necessarily collapse, including Marx’s objectivism. This is the price of the theoretical supersession of programmatism. To talk of an inevitable stage or passage doesn’t necessarily feed into a teleology, to the extent that the supersession made possible by this stage doesn’t precede it.

To understand these quotations within the problematic of the Manuscripts would lead us to think that the division of society into classes is a result of the fact that their suppression must be historically produced in a movement which abolishes its own necessity in its unfolding. Since we are now at a point where the division of society into classes can be abolished, we are to believe that all of past history had just that as its goal; the suppression of classes becomes the very reason of their origin. This entire problematic, which consists of searching for a cause, an origin of the division of society into classes, proceeds from the belief according to which communism is the normal state of Humanity. It really is a teleology.

It is in The German Ideology, following on from the Theses on Feuerbach, that Marx wipes the slate clean of this entire approach:

History is nothing but the succession of the separate generations, each of which exploits the materials, the capital funds, the productive forces handed down to it by all preceding generations, and thus, on the one hand, continues the traditional activity in completely changed circumstances and, on the other, modifies the old circumstances with a completely changed activity. This can be speculatively distorted so that later history is made the goal of earlier history, e.g. the goal ascribed to the discovery of America is to further the eruption of the French Revolution. Thereby history receives its own special aims and becomes ‘a person ranking with other persons’ (to wit : ‘Self-Consciousness, Criticism, the Unique’, etc.), while what is designated with the words ‘destiny’, ‘goal’, ‘germ’, or ‘idea’ of earlier history is nothing more than an abstraction formed from later history, from the active influence which earlier history exercises on later history (p.60) ‘This sum of productive forces, capital funds and social forms of intercourse, which every individual and generation finds in existence as something given, is the real basis of what the philosophers have conceived as ‘substance’ and ‘essence of man’, and what they have deified and attacked (p.51) ‘Thus the communists in practice treat the conditions created up to now by production and intercourse as inorganic conditions, without, however, imagining that it was the plan or the destiny of previous generations to give them material (my emphasis), and without believing that these conditions were inorganic for the individuals creating them. (p.88)

As regards the method of political economy, Marx writes in the 1857 Introduction: ‘What is called historical evolution depends in general on the fact that the latest form regards earlier ones as stages in the development of itself’. The process of formation of capital is certainly in relation to that which precedes it, but it is not in that which precedes it, nor is it the result of a historical trajectory having its own dynamic as raison d’être of the succession of historical social formations: ‘its process of formation [of capital] is the process of dissolution, the process of decomposition of the social mode of production which precedes it’ (Theories Of Surplus Value, quote translated from the French).

If from a philosophical point of view one considers this evolution of individuals in the common conditions of existence of estates and classes, which followed on one another, and in the accompanying general conceptions forced upon them, it is certainly very easy to imagine that in these individuals the species, or ‘Man’, has evolved, or that they evolved ‘Man’ — and in this way one can give history some hard clouts on the ear. One can conceive these various estates and classes to be specific terms of the general expression, subordinate varieties of the species, or evolutionary phases of ‘Man’ (The German Ideology, Chapter 4)

And finally:

The individuals, who are no longer subject to the division of labour, have been conceived by the philosophers as an ideal, under the name ‘Man. They have conceived the whole process which we have outlined as the evolutionary process of ‘Man’, so that at every historical stage ‘Man’ was substituted for the individuals and shown as the motive force of history. The whole process was thus conceived as a process of the self-estrangement of ‘Man’, and this was essentially due to the fact that the average individual of the later stage was always foisted on to the earlier stage, and the consciousness of a later age on to the individuals of an earlier.(The German Ideology, p. 86)

Here we have the genetic explanation of the concept of man and the general form of the critique of all these utilisations. As soon as we lock ourselves in the aporias of alienation and Man, we can’t escape succumbing to an optical illusion: this subject, this principle, is the imagined Man of communist society in relation to whom all the anterior limitations appear as absolutely contingent. The imagined individual of communist society is substituted for that of the anterior social forms; it becomes self-evident that for this individual all the anterior limits can only be contingent, which a contrario transforms this individual into a substantial transhistorical nucleus and allows the hard human nucleus to be set free, once it has, in order to become adequate to itself, accomplished all these avatars.

It is clear that this critique of teleology doesn’t mean that once the proletarian condition has been abolished we pass to a different period without any relation to the previous one apart from the end of exploitation. The link with the preceding stage is constituted by the historical significance of capital which is in no way a sum of seeds, but a certain stage of the contradiction between capital and proletariat; it is a content and a structuring of the contradiction between proletariat and capital, i.e. of the course of exploitation, which resolves itself in the capacity which the proletariat finds, in the contradiction with capital, of producing communism.

If communism resolves and supersedes this separation of individual and social activity, and if all of past history, as history of the class struggle, is the history of this division, this is not to say that it was bound to end up in this supersession, nor that this history splits into two within itself: in itself as principle or abstraction (the socialisation of nature, the development of productive forces, the fragmented social individual), and in itself as concrete history. This division is not the raison d’être of its own history, which means that it doesn’t carry its own supersession within itself like a hidden quality that it is to deploy as history until communism. Something mysterious is conferred on history by trying paradoxically to explain it, to give an account of it, by the deployment of a ‘hidden’ quality, an original potentiality. It is not the nature of labour, a constraint on the development of the productive forces or the self-alienation of labour, which produces the division of society, rather it is the division of society which we have at the beginning and which we have as our point of departure.

This separation has neither conceptual nor historical (chronological) origin; the search for the origin always consists of positing a single reality, not yet divided, i.e. not seeking a comprehension of history, but something before history. Whether we consider this something to be an abstraction or a historical reality, it only remains to convert each historical fact, each period, into the chosen original formula according to the following principle:

Mr Lange (On the workers’ question, etc., 2nd edition) pays me great compliments, but with the object of increasing his own importance. Mr Lange, you see, has made a great discovery. All history may be subsumed in one single great natural law. This natural law is the phrase (— the Darwinian expression becomes, in this application, just a phrase —) ‘struggle for life’, and the content of this phrase is the Malthusian law of population, or rather over-population. Thus, instead of analysing this ‘struggle for life’ as it manifests itself historically in various specific forms of society, all that need be done is to transpose every given struggle into the phrase ‘struggle for life’, and then this phrase into the Malthusian ‘population fantasy’. It must be admitted that this is a very rewarding method — for stilted, mock-scientific, highfaluting ignorance and intellectual laziness. (Marx, Letters to Kugelmann, June 1870).

But let’s call a truce in our marxology and pedantry – I hope we’ll have another chance to distinguish ourselves in these two domains. I would like to finish these complements to my reply by broaching a question which neither you, in your text on TC, nor we, in our reply, raise. I’m referring to the question of what is at stake in this dispute over alienation and humanity. I think that what’s at stake resides (as always) in our understanding of capital and the contradiction between proletariat and capital, i.e. in the understanding of class struggle inasmuch as it is the process of production of communism. It seems to me that your conception of alienation leads you to understand the contradiction between the proletariat and capital as a transitional phase in a process of which it is but an element, a moment, which has its raison d’être outside itself; a moment of realization of a more ‘global’ and truly efficient contradiction. The contradiction between the proletariat and capital is the necessary moment in order to realize a communist supersession, but in fact it is just because in it the alienation of humanity has taken on a form that renders it surmountable. If, as in the Manuscripts, you have an alienation of Man, an alienation which is an anthropology, you can only be coherent if you have a transhistoric ‘need for communism’.

What’s at stake here resides in our capacity to take the events of the course of the class struggle as concrete, finite events, and not as the manifestation of an historical line which transcends them. The ‘end’ is produced; it is not already the hidden meaning of the movement. What is at stake is our existence in the immediate struggles and our relation to them. The teleological problematic of alienation dispenses with the need to confront the real, historical developments of capital for themselves, and the class struggles for themselves. It prevents us from conceiving these latter as really productive of history and theory. This problematic supposes that the question of the relation of class struggle and revolution is always already resolved (that’s the way you understand, for example, the quote from the Missing Sixth Chapter which has been the subject of much of our debate up to now).

I’ll be straight to the point and ad hominem. To maintain the concept of alienation, with the acceptance which you have of this, allows you to maintain an abstract vision of autonomy and self-organisation (the true being of the proletariat), in spite of its historical collapse; and to continue to navigate (more or less comfortably) inside the direct action movement, as the critical consciousness of its shortcomings, i.e. whilst accepting its premises. Your texts such as those on ‘Reclaim the Streets’ or on the ‘direct action movement’ demonstrate well the desire to take on the analysis of current struggles in a concrete way. But your analyses weigh up the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ of these movements. You don’t broach the questions of the ‘why’ of these movements, of their ‘existence’, of what they contribute theoretically, of their existence as definitive of a period. Your general problematic doesn’t prompt you to consider them as the very historical product of the contradiction between proletariat and capital and this contradiction as what these movements and these struggles are. It doesn’t prompt you to take them all together as a whole, but instead to judge their different aspects. In a word, it doesn’t prompt you to understand and periodise a veritable concrete history of the cycles of struggles because the problematic of alienation is definitively a problematic of the revolutionary nature of the proletariat.

In friendship,
for Théorie Communiste
R.S.

  • 1. Cellatax was a textile mill in northern France that was threatened with closure in 2000. The workers occupied, briefly held officials hostage and threatened to blow up the plant which was full of poisonous and explosive chemicals. With banners reading ’We’ll go all the way... boom boom." they demonstrated their seriousness to the media by setting off small explosions and tossing chemicals into large fires in front of the factory gates. In a move not endearing them to environmentalists, they released some chemicals into the river and threatened more. After this they were offered and accepted a much more favourable redundancy package.
  • 2. Renault announced the closure of the Vilvoorde factory in Belgium in 1997. In what became known as the ‘eurostrike’ the workers occupied the plant, managed to prevent the hauling away of, and thus held ‘hostage’, 4,500 new cars. They made guerilla or commando raids to spread action to French plants. They received a lot of solidarity action both from Renault workers in France and Spain and from other Belgian carworkers culminating in a giant demonstration called at short notice in Brussels. After this the French Prime Minister came on to television to announce a big increase in the payoff to the workers.
  • 3. As can be seen by comparing this translated quotation with the original above, TC did in fact mistranslate this passage, construing the human essence as the thing being immersed when it was in fact the individual who was being described as immersed in the social relations. However it is debatable how much this changes the force of their criticism, for it is true that the human essence was not immediately identified with these social relations but was described as being ‘in’ them.
  • 4. Phylogenesis: (biology) the sequence of events involved in the evolutionary development and history of a species of organism or social group.
  • 5. This passage was actually crossed out in the manuscript.
  • 6. Published in English in the Verso anthology From Luther to Popper. We were unable to find a copy and so publish here a translation from the French.