Some thoughts by Raoul Vaneigem published in 1994 as a postface to The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
The Communist Manifesto is an instructive example of the way in which a project of human realisation gives birth to an even more inhuman social system than the one that it claimed to destroy and sought to replace.
That which separates each individual through abstraction from his own concrete existence works to oppress him sooner or later. The Communist Manifesto contained in embryonic form the empire of bewildering lies and communist ideology that constituted state truth because the spirit of emancipation that inspires it acted as a separated form of the will to live, which at every moment is both affirmed and denied in everyday life.
The history of all hitherto existing society has only been the history of an economic and social system where man denies his inherent humanity by becoming the product of the commodity he produces. Unlike a single freedom that authenticates the refined realisation of desires, abstract freedoms have always been the result of a commodity expansion determined by the need to make a profit.
Over the course of its evolution, every time that the economy found itself a prisoner to archaic forms, it has destroyed them in the name of free commerce, only to immediately implement new tyrannies decreed by the law of profit. Whatever the economy invests in social benefits, it gets back at the price of a double crime against humanity: it oppresses in the name of the freedom of the nation, of the people or of the individual, and it turns into a death drive the passionate impulse in favour of life that the breakdown of former tyranny had rekindled.
It is creation, not labour, that is specific to human beings. The transformation of life force into labour force represses and inverts this aspiration for self-enjoyment that demands the combined creation of the world and individual destiny. A universe transformed by labour only achieves the modernity of its fundamental inhumanity because it implies the transformation of man into labourer, his negation as a living and desiring being. By basing emancipation on the collective management of the means of production, Marx and Engels turned liberty into the flag of universal oppression.
The opposition between bourgeoisie and proletariat obscured the separation introduced by labour into the individual body: the head, where the consciousness of desires is centred, erecting itself as the citadel of a Mind given over to the repression of libidinal matter and its laborious exploitation.
The idea that a party could constitute the “spearhead of the proletariat” reproduced in the proletariat the hierarchy that the denaturalising function of labour had established into the thinking brain – the “boss” – and the rest of the body. It was to reinforce a will to power already favoured by the competitive character of an economy that, far from overcoming the adaptive and predatory character of the animal kingdom, socialised it, thereby trammelling human evolution and repressing creation to the borders of its empire, into the margins of art and dream.
Economic, political and social history has proven Marxist theory right on two essential points: the withering away of the state and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.
a) Having swallowed private capital in the East as in the West, the state regurgitated it in a more dilapidated condition, to which it can no longer find a solution.
b) The exploitation of human nature and terrestrial nature spread to such a degree that in exhausting the earth’s resources it exhausts its profitability. The tendency of the rate of profit to fall ultimately results today in closed-circuit financial speculation. The latter, invested less and less in production, clings to the residual profitability of the tertiary sector – dominated by unscrupulously profit-driven bureaucracy –, at the expense of the primary sector (agriculture, education, textiles, metallurgy etc.), the ruin of which demands the intervention of an ecological neo-capitalism.
Over the past two centuries, History has perpetually accelerated. 1789 marked the end of the predominance of an agricultural economy. The establishing of free trade propagated the democratic spirit, while the rise of industry strengthened the authoritarian spirit, inherent to the organisation of production, that state centralisation, fascist and Bolshevik in form, would bring to a peak.
In the second half of the 20th century, the importance of the productive sector dropped in favour of the consumer sector, which offered the best guarantee of profitability. Decolonisation enters so much more easily into the process of economic transformation since the new imperative “It doesn’t matter what you buy, just buy!” oversees a new mode of colonisation of the masses in industrialised countries.
The quantitative inflation of the consumable brings about a fall in the quality of goods, the deterioration of use-value, the gradual abandonment of primary sectors in favour of a tertiary sector dominated by parasitic and unscrupulously profit-driven bureaucracy. Above all, the despotism of profit at all costs means that the menace of global destruction weighs down on human and terrestrial nature.
To the extent that it obeyed, like its predecessors, an economic determination, the revolution of May ’68 demonstrates the necessary transformation of a commodity system that, in its crisis, discovered a new profitability in the reconstruction of the natural environment devastated by a, from then on, archaic capitalism, so dominant that it is still with us. It marked the gradual disappearance of political ideologies and the emergence of ideologies that were more directly focused on everyday life: hedonism, ethical consumerism, humanitarianism, and environmentalism.
On the other hand, the revolution of 1968 does have a specific characteristic: it was the first to carry the consciousness of the fact that, by limiting themselves to labouring for new forms of the economy, revolutionaries act in opposition to their human aspirations, which is to live better and not to dig themselves deeper into a system of survival that transforms their desires into commodity values. If the world has changed more in a few years than it has in many millennia, it is because in 1968 it began to change its foundation.
Because neo-capitalism must now impose itself against the barbarism of a capitalism whose agonising profitability entails the agony of the Earth, everything encourages it to establish itself through an ethic. But, the same is true for humanist ethics as for the liberty of thought and action that democratic institutions formally guarantee: it pretends to protect against lucrative inhumanity, pollution, corruption and the gangsterism of business, but it reduces to wilful abstraction a will to live that only enjoyment of the self and of the world is able to make the foundation of the creation of individual destiny and its environment.
If to be radical, as Marx wrote, is “to grasp the root of the matter. But, for man, the root is man himself”, the time has come for everyone to seize himself as the centre of a battle whose everyday outcome radically influences – in the direction of the living or resigned morbidity – the outcome of world events. It is this confrontation at the root to which everything that is undertaken in the name of the economy, of society, of morality and of humanity must refer.
Every use-value that is not a part of the project of enjoying the self and the world through the creation of the self and the world participates in the alienating commodity system.
It is no longer enough for intelligence to rely on the epoch in order to change it. From now on the body must become conscious of its will to live and of its environment as a territory to be liberated in order to establish the sovereignty of life.
[Vaneigem, Raoul. Postface: “Observations sur le Manifeste”. Manifeste du Parti Communiste par Karl Marx et Friedrich Engels. Paris: Mille et une nuits, 1994.]