Section two. The perspective of overcoming capitalism. Whither the proletariat? - Claude Bitot

Section two. The perspective of overcoming capitalism. Whither the proletariat? - Claude Bitot

First published in 1995 in France: Section One, “The Historical Balance Sheet” includes chapters on: communist movements throughout history; Marx and Engels and communism; “Real” vs. “Formal” domination of capital and the importance of this distinction for understanding the failure of the old workers movements (capitalism was not “obsolete” prior to 1945). Section Two, “Perspectives”, contains an extensive discussion of: the economic roots of capitalism’s current crisis (the “final stage of its cycle”); the communist revolution; and socialism.

The Perspective of the Overcoming of Capitalism

Whither the Proletariat?

As we have seen, the entry of capitalism into the final stage of its historical cycle has led, with the introduction of the “new technologies”, to a significant decline in the proportion of traditional factory workers in the working class, composed of specialist and professional workers. In one stroke, their majority status, together with the ideological burden that goes with the latter, melted away. “One is less and less justified to speak of a working class. (. . .) The working class is endangered”, as one may read in the bourgeois press,1 always eager for “news”. The step from this assertion to prophesying its “end” was soon taken. This being said, it is a fact that the idea of the proletariat was articulated essentially with respect to that factory working class that capitalism, especially at the end of the 19th century, had created on a vast enough scale. This class, although still in a minority (compared to the peasant world and the traditional petit bourgeoisie of the cities), had replaced the old craft workers and constituted a quite homogeneous and easily identifiable milieu. With growing automation, which partially did away with Taylorized labor as well as skilled professional workers, it is undeniable that (despite the fact that here and there some workers were replaced with “new professionals” responsible for the control, maintenance and surveillance of the new machinery) the notion of the proletariat has become less obvious, since the working class itself no longer has the same relative social weight in society. Such a notion would appear to have been erased due to the fact that, in the meantime, the wage workers of the tertiary sector who have been assimilated to the “new middle classes”, now constitute the majority of the active population. Suddenly, the polarization of society theorized by Marx, that is, its division into two great classes, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, while all the intermediate classes are destined, if not to disappear, at least to a drastic reduction of their numbers,2 appears to have been belied by the facts, with the increase of this “new petit bourgeoisie” with a “white collar”. Will the notion of the proletariat have to be reduced from now on to that of a marginalized working class?

A definition of the proletariat is necessary. Marx supplied a very explicit one: what defines a class is the kind of relation it has to property. As a result, for him: “The owners merely of labour-power, owners of capital, and land-owners, whose respective sources of income are wages, profit and ground-rent ... constitute then three big classes of modern society based upon the capitalist mode of production.”3 One therefore qualifies as a proletarian if one’s only property is one’s labor power; whether the latter is simple or compound, productive of surplus value or not, is merely of secondary importance, what is essential is that one sells one’s labor power for a wage.

This having been said, what is the proletariat today? In all the highly developed capitalist societies the immense majority of the workers are wage workers, since their labor power constitutes their sole property. The only option they have is to sell their labor power at the highest possible price. Thus, if they have been trained as an engineer, or a technician, or a teacher—which is only the case with respect to a privileged minority—the value of their labor power will obviously be higher than if they had received only a basic education. The advantage thereby conferred is by no means small, but this does not cause them to cease to be wage workers, that is, in the final accounting, proletarians: if their services are no longer required for one reason or another (age, inefficiency, etc.) or if an economic crisis breaks out, they, too, could find themselves unemployed,4 like any worker, because besides their labor power they have no property that could guarantee them access to means of subsistence.5 Therefore, once again, the proletarian is fundamentally characterized not by any particular kind of labor (factory labor) or by whether or not his labor is productive of surplus value (in any event, all the labor power used by capital is necessary for it, as it serves in the creation of surplus value or the sale of commodities), but by the fact that wage labor is his only source of income.

Thus, those who are saying “goodbye to the proletariat” do not know what they are talking about. They simply have the factory proletariat on their mind, which they see undergoing numerical decline. If Marx were to have theorized that the expansion of the proletariat would be limited exclusively to the factory workers and, on the other hand, had showed that machine production, in constant development, led to a relative diminution of the working class, he would have theorized a great absurdity. On the contrary, what he theorized was that capitalist development would lead to the elimination of small-scale independent producers who, in turn, would take refuge in wage labor. It is undeniable that, in the 19th century, wage workers were identified with factory workers.6 Today, now that artisans and small farmers have become insignificant and machine industry is making constant advances, wage workers are identified with the immense working majority that can only live by selling its labor power, in a factory or any other location, whether its labor is productive or unproductive, and not with the working class alone. This is why we can leave it to the sociologists to discover two or three “new classes”, on the basis of criteria that are no longer economic, but professional, cultural, and even psychological, and we shall note this fact: despite the tendency for the number of members of the industrial working class to decline, the proletariat, that is, the class that according to Marx has no property except its labor power, and whose only source of income is its wages, far from having disappeared, undoubtedly constitutes the most numerous class, and may comprise up to 80% of the active population. Among these workers we shall nonetheless admit that there is a layer of wage workers who are only “semi-proletarians”. Thus, there are the cadres who fulfill the role of assistants to the business owners who enjoy a level of pay that is much higher than the value of their labor power; or those employees who, thanks to guaranteed government jobs, escape the vicissitudes of the market and are therefore sheltered from unemployment; the idea that this more or less privileged layer forms a new petit bourgeoisie does not help clarify the notion of the proletariat, since, for now, we note that this enormous mass that now constitutes the wage labor force is also, for the most part, if one excepts the “new poor” who live on public assistance more than on of wage labor, bourgeoisified to various degrees: it takes advantage of some social programs, paid vacations, pensions, and wages high enough to enable them to afford consumer goods that were unattainable in other times, while many of them own their apartments or houses. To be clear, as a whole they enjoy a middle class lifestyle. This status suffices to cause them to not have the impression that they form part of the “damned of the earth” and “enslaved masses”, in the words of The Internationale, that is, of a class that has nothing to lose but its chains that is described by The Manifesto in the following terms: “The modern labourer ... instead of rising with the process of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth.”

We leave it to capitalism’s apologists to respond that these proletarian living conditions are “so 19th century”, and that they will never recur. With the entry of capitalism into the final stage of its cycle, this bourgeoisification of the wage workers is being threatened. The imperatives of profitability and competitiveness attack the positions that had appeared to be the most firmly entrenched. In the class struggle, the bourgeoisie has seized the initiative, laying off workers right and left, subjecting the workers to the blackmail of plant relocation, to “work and wage sharing” and other procedures that indicate the same goal: to lead the masses of the wage workers to the status of an impoverished class, subject to arbitrary taxation and the provision of personal services.

What is therefore being brought about is a new situation. This has the effect of making the various privileges and conquests of the preceding period seem to be more and more precarious. Hence, among workers, the worry, the fearful reactions, the corporative spasms, the purely conservative and sectoral actions (when they take place at all): “defense” of public enterprises threatened with privatization; “defense” of the sliding scale of wages as in Italy; “defense” of the legal status of the ports, as in France, etc. The proletariat displays an extreme heterogeneity, and is incapable, for the moment, of launching an action on a class scale.

“[The proletarians] have nothing of their own to secure and to fortify; their mission is to destroy all previous securities for, and insurances of, individual property” (Manifesto of the Communist Party). In other words, when the workers have lost their “advantages” they will become capable of fighting as a class: a leveling operation from below will take place that will place them in the same situation that will be homogeneous enough to lead them to act accordingly. With the various austerity measures that the bourgeoisie is imposing, this is the predominant trend and it will end by leading to a new revolutionary class struggle.

The Current Situation

In the countries of the East, State capitalism resulted—despite what western bourgeois propaganda has proclaimed—in some degree of economic and social progress for the masses (health, social security, housing, greater consumption) that they more or less understood to be “communism”. There were still, of course, notorious drawbacks. Thus, the “peoples democracy”, non-existent in comparison with western bourgeois democracy, appeared as the mask of a dictatorship, of the nomenklatura, which monopolized power and deprived the masses under their control of a voice. In the “federated republics” of the former USSR, as well as in the former Yugoslavia, the integration of national minorities was never carried out as a result of insufficient economic development. Nonetheless, the capitalist balance sheet of these countries appeared, to borrow the words of the French Stalinist Georges Marchais, “generally positive”.

As everyone knows, this kind of capitalism has demonstrated its limitations. Because it was not replaced, we have economic collapse. In some regions, we are witnessing the desperate search for “nationalist” solutions with the vigorous return and successful spread of ideological archaisms that the false communism of the East had not overcome.

In some countries of the “Third World”, notorious victims of the capitalist world market that never really recovered, a chaotic situation is also unfolding. In black Africa—where the old local economies have been destroyed without being replaced—we have witnessed the spread of bloody ethnic struggles. In some Arab countries, also the victims of international competition, we have seen the rise of Islamism: having observed the absence of any real capitalist development, one part of the masses has attempted to take refuge in the past, thinking that it is possible to return to the old ways of material and spiritual life that once prevailed.

“The Return of Religion”, “The Rise of Fundamentalism”, “Ethnic Conflict”, “Tribal Struggle” ... an entire region of the world is subject to phenomena that have all the characteristics of obscurantism and regression, as much in the mental as the political and social sense. This should not be surprising: contrary to what a certain “Third Worldist” ideology proclaimed, the socialist revolution was never on the agenda in the economically backward countries. What has taken place in those countries is therefore in conformance with the Marxist analysis that holds that only in the advanced capitalist countries will the necessary conditions for carrying out such a revolution prevail. Taking this into account, how can such a perspective be presented in that part of the world?

In the underdeveloped world, even if people are more or less subjectively ready to acknowledge that capitalism is going under, they will have trouble trying to figure out what can replace it. What prevails there for the most part is despair and pessimism: in a capitalism in its final stage that secretes exclusion, drugs, delinquency, racism, violence, fear, ghettoes, and alcoholism, people’s minds are open to the idea that a great crisis of the system can only result in a final catastrophe for humanity. As Marx wrote, however, you cannot judge an era by its own self-image. What explains today’s bewilderment is the economic development of capitalism. The latter having undergone a long period of expansion and prosperity that people have become accustomed to considering as normal, capitalism then plunges them, in its new stage—the one we have referred to as its final stage—into doubt, uncertainty, disbelief. In fact, we have entered into a period of the liquidation of old beliefs. Even if, for the moment, people are not yet subjectively capable of replacing these emotions with a revolutionary perspective, this questioning attitude has the advantage of clearing the ground, which can be verified with reference to diverse phenomena.

The Decline of Bourgeois Democracy

Bourgeois democracy constitutes a vast system of beliefs and values that are known as “republican” and that act as a cement that holds together all the classes and transforms them into a unified community despite all their differences. Within this system all enjoy equal rights, all are citizens, all recognize themselves in this society, which they consider to be the only possible society, one that can be gradually improved but not radically transformed. It is to bourgeois democracy that bourgeois society owes its stability and smooth functioning. By majority vote, political policies—whether right wing or left wing—are decided on a governmental scale, but without any important consequences for the capitalist system.

This is the developed form of bourgeois democracy. It embraces all classes and integrates them into the logic of capital. These classes find enough advantages in the capitalist system to participate in the game of this kind of democracy. Historically, this was not always the case. In its early days, bourgeois democracy excluded society’s lowest classes, especially the proletariat, which was considered to be a dangerous class that had to be kept apart from political life. This situation lasted until the last third of the 19th century and corresponded to the stage of capital’s formal domination. Later, the social and ideological integration of the proletariat and its accession to bourgeois democracy via its reformist socialist parties began. This arrangement, however, was not well received by a fraction of the proletariat (which adhered to anarchism and anarchosyndicalism) and above all by the traditional middle classes which, as we saw above, would reject bourgeois democracy and succumb to the appeal of fascism. It would not be until 1945 that bourgeois democracy would be universally imposed, a victory that corresponded to the complete triumph of capital’s real domination. From then on, bourgeois democracy would appear to be obvious for everybody, and enjoyed a real consensus in its support.

A new reality, however, made its debut: for some time now, bourgeois democracy has been losing its popularity. This phenomenon displays various aspects.

The rate of abstention from voting in elections is on the rise. In France, whereas this rate averaged approximately 20% between 1958 and 1978, it rose to 30% between 1981 and 1993, more than one out of three eligible voters (34.7% of those who registered to vote) either did not vote (12 million people) or else cast a null vote (1.4 million people), while in some locations, especially those affected by unemployment and those where the poorest workers are concentrated, the rate of abstention reached as high as 40-50%.

Political parties are also undergoing a decline in their fortunes. They are increasingly being reduced to parties of politicians and power brokers without any real rank and file militants. This tendency is all the more apparent among the leftist parties, which pretend to be more solidly rooted in mass mobilization than the parties of the right. Even if the number of their members is dissimulated or falsified, one may verify this downward trend by noting the obvious decrease in the number of sales outlets for their magazines and the decline in the number of their political posters, the decreasing frequency of political rallies, the poor attendance at their demonstrations, and the smaller print runs of their publications.

Finally, from a more general point of view, we note the decreasing interest in everything that refers to “public affairs”. Depoliticization has never been so widespread. The “citizen” is becoming more and more of an endangered species, vainly appealed to by certain journalists who still want to believe in the existence of such a specter. It is true, of course, that bourgeois democracy has never asked too much of its “citizens”—just that they occasionally go and cast their vote—but its formal character is now tending to become increasingly unreal. In fact, politics is being reduced to a spectacle-politics that is constantly going onstage and praising its own merits but which is becoming more and more confused.

Establishment politicians could not have overlooked these realities. They admit that there is “a crisis of politics”. “Today, an election has become an anxious confrontation: a certain number of our fellow citizens have a flight response, 50% do not vote”, the leftist politician Rocard observed (Le Monde, February 14, 1992). For its part, the Church, which has never held back when it is a matter of attending to the “conscience” of its congregation, declared, in the person of Monsignor Decourtray: “Yes, vote, everyone vote! It is an ardent obligation, no one has the right to exempt themselves from it. (. . .) Abstention rates have increased for several years to a disturbing degree. It is time to react. Those who do not vote objectively scorn the democratic society to which they belong. They disturb and adulterate its normal functioning. Without knowing it, they prepare the ground for dictatorship.” (Le Monde, March 15, 1992).

So, we already have a “Dictatorship”! In other words, fascism or something like it.... For the ideologues of bourgeois democracy, its crisis can only mean one thing: the rise of an extremely dangerous populism that has all the appearances of kinship with a kind of “neofascism”. What value does such an interpretation possess? It has no serious content. It only serves to muddy the waters, to mask the real nature of this crisis that worries the politicians of every stripe, a crisis they are trying to disguise with an alleged fascism that is supposedly threatening their democracy. To garner support for their theory, they rely on the emergence of the extreme right, in France for example, with the National Front, whose vote has climbed from 80,000 in 1981 to almost 3.1 million in 1989. Does this mean we are witnessing the rise of a new “fascism”? In fact, it reflects the anxiety of diverse layers of the traditional petit bourgeoisie that still survives (merchants, small business owners, craftsmen, even some farmers). Poorly equipped to endure competition in the Europe of free trade, they cling to the nation to survive and demand a “return to protectionism”. In addition, in order to extend their influence, they speak of a “national identity” that is threatened by a rising tide of immigration (a result of the chaotic conditions that prevail in some regions of the Third World, as we saw above) in the hope of attracting voters who are either unemployed or threatened with losing their jobs. It is therefore the development of capitalism, within the framework of the final stage of its cycle, towards supranational forms (like the European Community), which has triggered the emergence of such a nationalist and xenophobic current. It is possible that some elements of this petit bourgeoisie are nostalgic for fascism, but they no longer have the same social weight as in times past for embarking on the adventure of fascism. Meanwhile, the real domination of capital has gone beyond that point and has left them in its wake, its big supermarkets having supplanted the small grocer, the extension of wage labor having reduced the artisan to his local role, and the draconian elimination of the small scale exploiting peasantry has left few survivors. Historical conditions have changed. Today, this current has come to terms ideologically with bourgeois democracy (it by no means questions the principle of bourgeois democracy, it only accuses the latter of “laxity”, while historical fascism openly repudiated bourgeois democracy by attempting to carry out a “revolution”); likewise, it has made a political arrangement with bourgeois democracy, trying to form alliances with the more moderate right in order to influence the policies of the latter with regard to issues such as immigration, trade agreements, etc. In fact, this current is nothing but—and can no longer be anything else—the extreme right of bourgeois democracy. It is one of its components, since it serves its interests. By successfully capturing part of the electorate, convincing it that without immigration there would be no unemployment, it performs a service for bourgeois democracy, as it thus reduces the number of non-voters. Its nationalist and xenophobic positions allow bourgeois democracy, currently in ideological freefall, to restore a little of its popular support, due to the fact that the extreme right is considered to be the incarnation of the fascist threat; thus leading to a discourse whose content can be summarized as follows: Democracy is the apex of the development of society; it is not perfect and without faults, of course, it is even, if you like, the worst kind of regime, with the exception of all the others.... Nonetheless, Democracy is not immune to danger, it is always the same threat and it must be confronted: the totalitarian danger! Thus, communism and fascism, which were the two horrible faces of this totalitarianism in the past; today, it is fascism that returns under the repellent aegis of racism, intolerance, the rejection of the other; therefore, everyone at their posts! We have to prepare for a new struggle for Democracy, which is never definitively won, but must be incessantly defended, re-conquered, restored.... This is the purpose of Le Pen. He and his party are ideologically exploited—with their knowledge—by bourgeois democracy, which hopes in this way to recover its health for a good price.

Fascism—the genuine article—corresponded to a critical stage of the development of bourgeois society that was surpassed with the complete triumph of capital’s real domination. Fascism is historically dead. If bourgeois democracy is today weakening and entering into crisis, this can only mean one thing: that henceforth it has entered an irreversible process of decline that must be understood in the context of the equally irreversible crisis of the capitalist mode of production. If one part of the workers no longer votes, it is not because they have “gone fascist”. They have taken account of the fact that voting is no longer of much use, that the right and the left are exactly the same, that democracy has no influence on the economy, and that the really decisive factor is not the voter but capital, borderless, anonymous, at home anywhere, in the World Bank or anywhere else.... Likewise, if the political parties are no longer such superstars it is because, since the onset of the final stage of the capitalist cycle, all of them have been powerless to stop this process, even when they were in power. It is true that, for now at least, the consensus in favor of bourgeois democracy still exists. In elections the majority of the workers are still successfully mobilized, although with more and more difficulty, after exhortations against abstention and campaigns focused on the “Le Pen danger”. It does not matter; the die is cast. The breaking point will come when capitalism is forced to attack the “social conquests”, to drive the majority of the workers into a situation of aggravated pauperism. Then the workers will turn their backs on bourgeois democracy and its decline will be so pronounced that it will regress to the conditions of its infancy, when it was reserved only for the privileged classes. This exclusion will not be institutionalized as it was in the past, but will in fact prevail: only the rich, those with reserves, the privileged, the secure, that is, the minority consisting of those who are satisfied with the capitalist system, will vote, while the others, the poor, those in a precarious situation, the unemployed, sensing that they are rejected, will exclude themselves from this democracy.

This decline of bourgeois democracy, instead of leading to a reactionary outcome as all its defenders strive to convince us, is replete with revolutionary significance. It will become increasingly more difficult for it to pass itself off as “democracy in general”, situated above classes, that is as much the concern of the beggar as of the multimillionaire: once its decline has reached its culmination, where it is plainly visible as the democracy of the bourgeoisie, such a mystification will collapse on its own. After that, the conditions for a radical appropriation of consciousness will be established: bourgeois democracy will come to the end of its rope, and then the problem of its replacement by another kind of democracy, workers democracy, will be posed. This is the real lesson of the current decline of bourgeois democracy.

The Decomposition of Reformism

Reformism has characterized the workers movement for many years. It was based on a capitalism that was in full expansion after 1945. Its role was therefore logical: to apply pressure so that the working class, and more generally the masses of wage workers, should enjoy some of the fruits of this growth. Riding the wave of the “great social conquests” won by the workers (starting during the 1930s and the post-war years) whose merits were recognized by all, reformism boasted that it would drive social progress even further: until the installation of what it called “socialism” (or “communism” for the admirers of that form of the latter that supposedly existed in the East), and would accomplish this, obviously, in the most peaceful way possible, without a crisis of capitalism, without conflicts, without revolutionary class struggle, but thanks only to the magical power of the ballot, and the business owners, the “right”, “big capital”, would have no choice but to comply once the “left comes to power”.... But this was not the most important characteristic of reformism. The essential feature of reformism was that it appeared, in the eyes of the mass of the workers upon whom it was based, as the effective instrument for the satisfaction of their immediate interests, while all the rest, the speeches about socialism, were there for decorative purposes and for a “dose of soul”.

In these conditions, reformism enjoyed a certain prestige. Operating within a capitalism that was partially based on mass consumption, it boasted that it was capable of permanently improving the standard of living and, occasionally, after a couple more drinks, it promised that it would “transform life”. But what happens when capitalism starts discharging workers by the millions, freezes wages, undertakes vast restructuring operations and generates a new poverty that was thought to be a thing of the past? With capitalism’s new course, reformism could only be shaken to its foundations; it was destined to gradually lose its credibility, first of all among those workers struck down by unemployment, but also in the eyes of those wage workers not yet affected by unemployment who are relatively secure and who, aware of the threat, sink into despondency. This is why, unable to reverse what is commonly referred to as the “crisis”, it was condemned to decay, a phenomenon that can be observed from several different angles.

Reformism had the political goal of taking control of the State in order to bring its weight to bear on the capitalist economy for the alleged benefit of the workers. Since, however, capitalism can no longer concede any reforms, such a “leftist policy” can only come to grief. This was verified in France between 1981 and 1993. During these years, the “left” certainly took care of business, but it had to implement a “right wing policy”, restructuring capitalism in the interests of modernization, imposing a strict wage policy, and renouncing the plan to “re-stimulate consumption” that it had initially supported. But this kind of “realistic management”, which led to an increase in unemployment, the spread of precarious work, and the appearance of the “new poor”, turned against reformism. It collapsed on the electoral plane, as exemplified in the fiasco of March 1993 when it garnered its lowest percentage of the national vote since 1946: 30.7% of the ballots cast, including the votes for the extreme left. The parties of the left have also suffered considerable setbacks, as they are hemorrhaging members, as in the case of the PCF. Outside of France, the situation of the European left is hardly any better. In Italy, the PCI has split into two fractions. In Great Britain, the Labor Party, after four consecutive defeats in the national elections, continues in its pursuit of power. In Spain, while the “socialists” have until now managed, through good and ill, to hold onto power, this is primarily due to the fear inspired by the right due to the latter’s association with Francoism. In Germany, “the social democrats are undergoing (. . .) their worst crisis of confidence since they ceded power to Helmut Kohl in 1982”. (Le Monde, April 3, 1993). Even in the Scandinavian countries, all the left wing parties have been driven into opposition and have been severely weakened.

This decomposition also affects the trade unions. If it is true that in a country like Germany the trade unions still have millions of members concentrated in powerful organizations that can play a relatively effective role in securing the demands of labor, this is no longer the case in other countries. Thus, in France—as in the United States—where, over the last fifteen years, the trade unions have lost up to half their members. The same cause, the same effect: as in the case of the parties, the weakening of the trade unions can be explained by their inability to confront the new economic situation. As long as capitalism was in the midst of its “thirty glorious years”, it had “grist for the mill” and the trade unions derived a certain degree of prestige from it. They could “negotiate” when it was to their taste and now and then they could call a 24-hour strike to put pressure on management. The trade union members, in turn, joined the trade union organizations as if they were insurance funds, paid their dues and left it to their leaders to look after their interests. But those were good times of prosperity and expansion. Now that capitalism is obliged to tighten the screws, it is no longer a question, for management, of making concessions, and for the trade unions it is no longer possible to mobilize the workers in order to bring pressure to bear on the employers. The relation of forces stands in favor of the bosses. So what purpose could the trade unions still serve? The wage workers abandon them now that they do not see the usefulness of joining and paying dues when this no longer delivers the goods. This is the realism instilled into the workers educated in the no less realistic school of reformist trade unionism.

Originally, reformism, a right wing current within the workers movement, verbally proclaimed its adherence to socialism, which, according to its view, could be achieved without revolution. Today, it has completely abandoned socialism. Thus, Lionel Jospin, secretary of the “socialist” party from 1981 to 1988, said: “There is little reason to believe that socialism, as a specific mode of production, still has any future.” (Le Monde, April 11, 1992). We get the same kind of declaration from a slightly more “marginal” leftist ideologue, André Gorz: “As a system, socialism is dead.”7 As for the reformism of the ex-Stalinists, the formal reference to communism, when it is not abandoned outright, as in Italy, is undermined by a whole series of “reconstructors”, “refounders” and other “renovators”. On the doctrinal plane, reformism once proclaimed its adherence to the theory that provided the foundation of modern socialism: Marxism. This was a Marxism whose radical and subversive edge had been severely blunted and transformed into a doctrine that conferred a semblance of coherence to opportunism. This use of Marxism is today seldom undertaken, since it no longer serves any purpose: with the entry of capitalism into the final stage of its historical cycle, reformism, faced with the impossibility of introducing the reforms that, according to its theory, would have to lead to socialism, no longer has the need for any theoretical guarantee. Even where this abandonment of Marxism is not total (there are still a few reformist “hard-core nuclei” that formally maintain the reference to Marxism, such as the PCF), it has nonetheless made significant progress. Almost the entire left intelligentsia, that once swore only by Marxism, which has been transformed into the “impassable horizon of our time”, have changed sides. According to them, Marxism has been “superseded”: it is “archaic”; it cannot account for history’s complexity—when it is not denounced as a “deadly utopia”.

Confronted by the new period that capitalism has entered, classical and historical reformism has decomposed politically, socially and ideologically. It is true that it speaks of “recomposition”, of adapting to the new situation. But what good would such a “recomposition” be even if it were to take place? The direction it is currently taking provides eloquent testimony with regard to this question. In Italy, the party called “communist” has been re-established as a party of the “center left” (with Achille Ochetto’s Party of the Democratic Left). In France, one need not be particularly intelligent to predict that the PCF will end up carrying out the same operation. As for the socialist party, it wants to be a “modern party”. Plainly speaking, all are moving to the right.... Losing votes to the left, abandoned by many of its voters, reformism seeks votes wherever an electoral base still exists that has not been touched by the “crisis”, an electoral base that is susceptible to the appeal of its new creed: “capitalism with a human face”. But the margin is narrow since the terrain is already occupied by the parties of the right that also play the tune of a “moderate” capitalism in order to get votes.

A similar rightward orientation can be discerned within trade unionism. The CFDT has already shown the way: the old “demand”-based trade unionism of struggle for higher wages and better working conditions is being replaced by a trade unionism of “participation”, which is limited to revising management proposals (the “strike” is a thing of the past).

The death of Marxism has been announced. But what will replace it? Here we enter into a vague artistic fog. Under the guise of explaining the world we will have to be content with “ethics”, “culture”, “modernity”, and “humanism”, and other key concepts that will allow for the analysis of great social and historical phenomena.... This is why we have to say goodbye to historical materialism, dialectics, the proletariat, and the class struggle! We are to take the step to “morality”, to sincere humanism, and to human rights! The constant refrain of human rights! Historical reformism had a strong tendency to thresh out such great chaff-words as Progress, Justice, and Universal Concord; neo-reformism wallows in stupidity and theoretical nullity. The reference to socialism could eventually be resuscitated, but since “there is no other economic system but capitalism”, as Gorz writes,8 what kind of socialism could this possibly refer to? “It is not a question”, as the latter author emphasizes, “of ‘suppressing’ the economy, of abolishing industry, the autonomy of individual enterprises, and capital. It is merely a question of restoring economic rationality, such as it is perfectly expressed in the autonomized demands of capital, to its rightful place, which is a subordinate one.” Here we have touched upon the heart of the problem. “Capitalism with a human face”, in which “the logic of the market and profit” would be limited.... We find the same grandiose perspective in Max Gallo, who, in his Manifesto for the End of a Dark Century, explains that a “revolution” is necessary but, he hastily adds, it must be a “realist” revolution: “A revolution that recognizes capitalism—the market—its cardinal virtues (individuality, creativity, dynamism, competition and rivalry, and productivity) in order to better exploit them, to divert them, and constrain them to finance, by way of tax policies and budgetary priorities, activities that will support values that, over the long run, will question the absolute domination of capitalism in all production and thought”.9 And Max Gallo gives us the quintessence of his high-flying thought: “A revolution that is nourished by capitalism, that accepts it as ‘economism’ in order to reject it as a civilization.” How sublime! A real gem worthy of Gorz, who is not afraid to claim that we have to “pursue the extinction of capitalism without suppressing the autonomy of capital.” So we do not have to “break” with capitalism any more, as he proclaimed not so long ago; as a mode of production, capitalism cannot be subjected to limits, and is, in the final accounting, “the end of history”, and one is profoundly swayed by its omnipotent “logic” and the immensity of its infinite horizons ... but within these infinite horizons the little bourgeois intellectual hopes to create “spaces of liberty”, escaping the kingdom of the commodity, where one may engage in “self-determination”, “self-creation” and “self-management”. A downpour of “selfs”. This, at the end of a decidedly “dark” century, is socialism.... As for the PCF, although it preserves more of the form, it doesn’t lag far behind. After having spent decades prostrated before the capitalism of the Stalinist state, then presented as the very model of “socialism”, they denounce it for having been a “barracks socialism” (it was, then, a kind of socialism after all!) and opt instead for a “modern democratic socialism” (ah, this word “democracy” is the main ingredient in every sauce!), or to put it another way, for a “socialist” ... “market economy”—in accordance with the terms of Gorbachev’s last will and testament before his political demise. Thus, Jacques Barros, in Marxism, the Impassable Horizon, says: “The dynamism and the disorderly expansion of the market, which is a manifestation of life, must be disciplined, dominated, and subordinated to the higher interests of the species, but not paralyzed (. . .). Vigilance is necessary, and a constant effort of will to promote market socialism, in which the market will not disappear.”10 Thus, as with Gorz and Gallo, we need the “market” (it is “life”), but not too much, as a “happy medium” is required so that capitalism will be domesticated and show a “human face”.

In the guise of “recomposition”, the old right wing of the workers movement that once constituted reformism can now only be a pitiful left wing of capitalism. From the social democrats a la Chevènement to the orphans of Stalinism, passing through Pope John Paul II’s Encyclical Centesimus annus, and not forgetting to include the editorial team at Le Monde Diplomatique, the program is the same: a vague social liberalism decorated with the latest fashion in ecologism, a rose-colored humanism, tearful Third-Worldism and decomposed leftism. There are still some who try to rekindle the flame a little with appeals to the “real left”, as opposed to the “caviar left”; the kind exemplified by Jaurès, Blum, the Popular Front and the Liberation.... But this is just so much wasted effort: it cannot be and never was! That left belongs to the Golden Age of reformism, long gone and never to return. As was amply demonstrated by the “socialist” experience in France between 1981 and 1993, the only “left” that is possible now is the “left” of Tapie, Lang and other “nepotists”....

Reformism constitutes a pillar of highly developed capitalist society. Without it, this society becomes unstable. In order for this kind of society to function in a more or less normal way, it must allow its lower layers and working class to enjoy a minimum of social benefits. This is the price that capitalist society pays for cohesion and stability. The function of the reformist movement, underpinned by the political and trade union left, is to put pressure on the state structures of capital in order to forward the movement for reforms and to consolidate those that have already been obtained. Today, this kind of reformism no longer exists. It has been replaced by welfare and charity (“good works”, the Abbott Peter, etc.), which give assistance to the most destitute and serve the most urgent need of all: to prevent a social revolt. This aid policy means that capitalism still has a certain margin for maneuver, but not enough to implement a vast reform movement, as was the case after the crisis of 1929. The reformist organizations understand this, which is why they limit their efforts to the “defense” of “conquests”. But they are not being at all realistic. As the final stage of the capitalist cycle continues to unfold, they will be discredited to the same degree the former advances. They may successfully fool some people for a while with “proposals” like “social Europe”, the “new citizenship”, “the sharing of work without reduction in wages”, and other nonsense. It does not matter, their time is up: the time has come when capitalism is openly moving towards forms of exploitation and oppression that will heap scorn and ridicule on the joke of “capitalism with a human face”. Then we will have to deal with “feral” capitalism, without reformism, which will not last much longer, because the class struggle will take over the job of settling accounts!

For the class struggle has not yet joined the fray, although the powers of the capitalist system fear it, despite their pompous declarations about “the death of communism”. In order to conjure away their fears and cover their tracks, they engender confusion by trying to persuade us that any attempt to confront the “crisis” can only lead to a “new fascism” or to something that would make fascism look mild by comparison; the more poverty and exclusion there is, the more popular Le Pen, and therefore fascism, will be, and we shall be buried, thanks to the sociologists and journalists, under images of the “everyday racism” that rules in the outskirts of Sarcelles or Berlin.... Le Pen, “fascism reborn” ... we have already said what we think of this; it is part of the spectacle-politics staged every night on television. “The new poor”, the precursors of fascism.... In fact, what such an environment has produced is exhaustion and resignation. Why? Because nothing else can be expected from such an environment composed of the excluded, the unemployed, the uprooted, and people living on government assistance. “Man’s social existence determines his consciousness”, Marx wrote. As a result, this minority, due to its own conditions of existence, is condemned to non-existence. If it is pushed to its limits, it may launch revolts, but they will not have a future, and will quickly collapse back into apathy. It is not from this decomposed social base that the class struggle can re-arise. As the entire history of the class struggle demonstrates, it was not the lumpenproletarians who formed the real “dangerous classes”. The real threat always came from the workers.

The Perspective of Communism

“Humanity only poses problems to itself that it can solve”, Marx wrote. Until now, communism has only been the project of minorities. To a certain extent, it was the “ideal” of some workers vanguards and some dissident bourgeois intellectuals, while the masses of the workers were content with mobilizing for a goal that could be more easily achieved: the improvement of their living conditions within the framework of capitalism. Now we are entering a new period. As a result of having entered the final stage of its historical cycle, capitalism is not only unable to concede any more benefits, but is preparing to withdraw those that it has already conceded. In these conditions, taking account of the fact that reformism is no longer possible, and in view of the increasing impoverishment of the working class, why have the workers not reacted to this situation, this time with a full-scale attack directed at the system itself? How much longer can they endure being treated like pariahs, like the “scum of the earth”, these workers who live in rich countries endowed with highly advanced and numerous technological and scientific capacities that could provide everyone with a roof over their head and a life of dignity? How could they not see this contrast, which is now so shocking, between the modern forces of production that enclose society and the completely obsolete capitalist relations of production that engender massive unemployment, the exclusion of entire categories and finally poverty for the majority of humanity? With regard to the new historical situation, the necessity for a radically different organization of production will eventually get into people’s heads, one that will eliminate the “market economy” and be oriented towards a form of production and consumption of products that will no longer be mediated by commodity exchange, wage labor and money. And what will this form be, then? Communism, “abominable communism”.

Yes, communism, because there will be no other solution to the generalized and final crisis of capitalism. Today communism still appears in the eyes of the workers as a discredited or impractical perspective. They do not have any inclination to take a closer look at it, because they either buried it, thinking it has failed, or else lost all interest in it because they consider it a utopia. And this is quite logical. As long as capitalism is capable of offering a minimum of benefits it will be endurable, and it will be quite natural that communism will only be viewed as nothing but a chimera or as a disastrous idea. But when capitalism, due to its own internal contradictions, forces men to live in increasingly painful conditions that test their patience, the workers will change their opinion concerning communism and will turn in that direction—at first, necessarily, in a confused and groping manner. When that time comes, they will no longer ask whether communism is desirable or not, practical or not, since they will have become cognizant of the fact that capitalism is no longer either viable or tolerable. Very quickly, the communism that previously appeared to them as an absurd and even repellent idea, will acquire a new, reasonable and desirable dimension. In short, it is necessity that will lead them to think in this way.

One could very well express surprise at the fact that, in view of the current economic and social situation, the perspective of communism has not already begun to be manifested in people’s consciousness. Instead, there is an ideological vacuum. Capitalist society has become an immense machine—in Pascal’s sense of the term—for entertaining and diverting people’s consciousness from their real concerns. Television, bars, every kind of game, amusement parks and theme parks, all of these things form part of the same mechanism. Colossal sums are spent to stage vast spectacles on a planetary scale (Olympic Games, World Cup, Papal tours, etc.), all accompanied by extensive publicity campaigns, broadcast on cable TV. Each involves attracting attention and stupefying. Sports unleash the passions; the spectacle of sex feeds the optical illusions.

What does all this diversion mean? That the most certain means to divert people’s attention and turn their energies towards counterrevolutionary goals, a large scale war—the most potent form of diversion—is no longer possible. “Sacred causes” are necessary that will be capable of mobilizing and galvanizing men. But this is not 1914. Bourgeois civilization has entered the final stage of its historical cycle and has exhausted its mythological capital: today, no one would lift their little finger for the Fatherland, the Republic, or Freedom, if doing so involved risking their skin for these things; one may still want—in an ever more peaceful way—to march in the streets for the rights of man, against racism and for other fashionable causes, but only on the condition that this in no way jeopardizes one’s personal safety. From now on, war will only engender pacifist reactions. In response, war is carried out for “humanitarian” reasons, as is currently taking place in the former Yugoslavia. The Gulf War was accepted in so far as it was an affair of “specialists”, of professional soldiers, and not of citizens in uniform. Mobilization in the old sense of the word now only takes the form of mobilizing television viewers. It will be said that starting a war is the only way capitalism can save itself: a “good war” causing massive destruction, and then capitalism will have a fresh start. It would thus possess the convenient means to regenerate itself into infinity! Crisis-War-Reconstruction and so on forever.... It is like saying that capitalism is eternal! This idea can be found among both its supporters and its enemies. They interpret the two world wars as means that have permitted capitalism, which appeared to be doomed, to survive. So, why not a third world war! This explanation is erroneous. It smacks of bargain basement Marxism or of a belief in a capitalism that cannot be overcome. The two world wars were not caused by a situation where capitalism was in its death throes and could only survive by means of massive destruction; they were instead, as we have seen, violent manifestations of its transition to its real domination. The fact that these wars also served the purpose of modernizing the capitalist apparatus of production, nobody denies. But this was not their primary objective. This is proven by the fact that Taylorism was born before the war of 1914, that Fordism appeared before the war of 1939 and that the information revolution has arisen outside of any context of a world war for almost 50 years. But let us suppose that another war is necessary for the survival of capitalism. Will this enable it to obtain its goal? Assuming this would be possible without blowing up the planet, it would still be incapable of revalorizing capital: with the reconstruction that would follow, the organic composition of capital would rise to an even higher level, which would render the survival of the capitalist mode of production utterly impossible.

The kind of diversion that we are witnessing is thus the only kind possible. Its function is to suppress any questioning of capitalism’s validity and the problem of its replacement. It is working, as the current ideological vacuum demonstrates. But it is not without its weaknesses, as many “communications” experts acknowledge that the traditional models of consumption are suffering from declining sales among those who still have purchasing power. They therefore propose the need for their overhaul. It is quite possible that this will succeed to some extent. But it does not matter, for as the final stage of capitalism’s cycle unfolds, this policy of diversion will eventually display its nullity to the majority of people.

  • 1. Le Monde, Reports and Documents, December 1984.
  • 2. “Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat. (. . .) The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of Modern Industry.” Karl Marx, Manifesto of the Communist Party, in The Marx-Engels Reader, Second Edition, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, pages 474 and 482.
  • 3. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume III, Chapter 52, International Publishers, New York, 1967, p. 885.
  • 4. In August 1992 there were 162,000 unemployed professionals and executives in France.
  • 5. Not to be confused with a house, for example, which can be bought on credit but which is only an individual’s personal property rather than capital that could be used to make his borrowed money a source of profit and could thus be used in this way to meet the individual’s needs.
  • 6. Although Marx did point out that “the extraordinary increase in the productivity of large-scale industry, accompanied as it is by both a more intensive and a more extensive exploitation of labour-power in all other spheres of production, permits a larger and larger part of the working class to be employed unproductively. Hence it is possible to reproduce the ancient domestic slaves, on a constantly extending scale, under the name of a servant class, including men-servants, women-servants, lackeys, etc.” (Capital, Vol. I, Chapter 15, Vintage Books, New York, 1977, p. 574). Later, due to technological progress, these “domestic slaves” largely disappeared, although, now that capital has entered the end of its historical cycle, they have a tendency to reappear in the form of “small businesses”.
  • 7. André Gorz, Capitalism, Socialism, Ecology, Verso, New York, 1994, p. vii.
  • 8. Ibid., p. 2.
  • 9. Max Gallo, Manifeste pour une fin de siècle obscure, Ed. Odile Jacob, Paris, 1990, pp. 197-198.
  • 10. Jacques Barros, Marxisme horizon indépassable, Ed. L’Harmattan, Paris, 1992, pp. 197-198.