The communisers do not have a strategy for exiting capitalist society. The real and difficult problems of class consciousness, political organisation, bourgeois power and a period of transition are simply brushed aside as non-problems. What this represents is disillusionment and a cry of despair.
Communisation theory has attracted many from the fringes of left-communism and anarchism and its positions have even been taken up by groups within the left-communist milieu itself.1 There is no single platform or manifesto of this school; instead a number of organisations, groups or isolated theoreticians have developed elements of the theory and, of course, there are disagreements between the various groups and theoreticians. A somewhat heterogeneous body of theory has resulted, however, there is a common body of ideas which are largely accepted by the school and which we will consider below. These ideas generally represent an attempt to “modernise” Marxism but have also grafted on elements of anarchism, such as organisation being unnecessary for revolution and the state to be immediately abolished.
The roots of this school lie in the failure of the 1968 French social upheaval to take a revolutionary direction. The initial theorists were influenced by the Situationist International and the publication Invariance whose main animator was Jacques Camatte. A negative critique of social democracy (which we can share) was combined with an admiration for the Autonomist struggles in Italy. Much theoretical elaboration followed making use of works of writers from the Frankfurt school and German academic Marxist theoreticians of the “New Marxist Reading” school, while also returning both to the early texts of Marx and to his previously unpublished notes which had now become available. The result was a new attempt to periodise capitalism’s development using the concepts of formal and real subjection of the labour process and to use this and “value-form” analysis to undermine the programme of what they call traditional Marxism. This provided the theoretical underpinning for the complete rejection of the theoretical programmes of the Second and Third Internationals and with this a rejection of any lessons which could be learned from previous revolutionary efforts. Endnotes, the British communisation group, bluntly stated in their first publication;
"Strictly speaking we have nothing to learn from the failures of past revolutions."2
The general conclusion is that the entire programme for creating communism which emerged from the lessons of the failures of the Second and Third Internationals was useless. Instead communism needed to be created immediately during the revolutionary period without the proletariat taking political power or any transition from capitalism. Communisation would destroy both proletariat and bourgeoisie simultaneously, end work, destroy the economy and destroy the state. What makes all this utopian is that the social force to carry through this revolution is not clear. This is because, we are told, there is a disintegration of the labour/capital relation itself.3 The productive working class is seen as a shrinking, atomised and decomposing segment of an increasingly surplus proletariat. The communisers’ explanation of how this enormous and immediate social change is to come about is either totally absent or simply mystical. We are told there needs to be no party, or at least it is a spontaneous organisation4 , and no general organisation. Possibly inter-class struggles, looting, rioting and refusal to work will initiate this revolution. Théorie Communiste, the principal French group of the school, sees the working class as no longer a potential revolutionary force. They simply declare that communisation will be a result of the historical and social development of capitalism. In other words historical development will solve these questions and for this we must wait. This is a recipe not just for the complete failure of the revolution but for acquiescence in capitalism’s road to barbarism. However, it is based on a mass of theoretical work which we intend to review below.
Does Marxism need updating?
Communisers claim that in the 150 years since Marx wrote the Critique of the Gotha Programme the development of capitalism has totally undermined Marx’s proposals and the programme of the traditional Marxist movement. They claim that in the 19th century capital’s subjection, or subsumption as it is often called, of the labour process was only formal but since the start of the 20th century this subjection has become real. The distinction between formal and real subjection is mentioned briefly by Marx in Capital Volume 1 and in greater detail in his drafts of Capital written in 1861-1863, now available as “The results of the direct production process”.5 This is certainly not a key concept in Marx’s analysis, but it is a central vehicle in communisation’s critique of what they call traditional Marxism. For Marx the formal subjection he refers to is the early stage of capitalist development within feudalism:
"The class of wage-labourers, which arose in the latter half of the 14th century … formed … only a very small part of the population … master and workmen stood close together socially .. the subordination of labour to capital was only formal – i.e. the mode of production itself had as yet no specific capitalistic character."6
Under capital’s formal subjection of the labour process, capital has not yet acquired direct control of the labour process. For Marx, it represents an early and transitory stage in the development of capitalism. One of the characteristics of this stage is that increases in surplus value are achieved by extending labour time rather than revolutionising the means of production, reordering the work, etc. This stage is therefore characterised by the extraction of “absolute” surplus value by capital.
"… the mere formal subjection of labour to capital suffices for the production of absolute surplus value, if, e.g. it is sufficient that the handicraftsmen who previously worked on their own account, or as apprentices of a master, should become wage labourers under the direct control of a capitalist …"7
The production of relative surplus value assumes capital has taken full control of the labour process, or real subjection exists. This Marx calls the capitalist mode proper. Here use is made of machinery, organisation of the work and large numbers of workers. Increases in surplus value are achieved by revolutionising the means of production thereby increasing productivity and so reducing the necessary labour required for the reproduction of the workers. This stage is characterised by extraction of “relative” surplus value. It is clear that real subjection of the labour process is what is assumed throughout Marx’s analysis in Capital including in the reproduction tables in Volume 2. It is also clear that Marx uses these terms strictly in relation to the labour process whereas the communisers expand the application of real subjection to all aspects of society. The terms are being invoked in a way that was not intended by Marx.
Periodisation of capitalism’s development
The primary use of this division is an attempt to periodise the development of capitalism and relate this to tactics the working class should adopt within each period. This is, of course, problematic as capitalist development is uneven globally and even within a single country both stages may exist together. Hence there is disagreement about periodisation. Endnotes, for example, regards the division as completely useless for periodising capitalist history. There seems, however, to be some agreement that the period up to 1914 represents formal subjection. For Théorie Communiste the real subjection which follows 1914 is divided into two periods the first ending in 1970 and the second, encompassing restructuring, lasting to the present. However, others such as Internationalist Perspective see certain sectors of the economy existing under formal subjection while others simultaneously were under real subjection. British agriculture, they consider, was under formal subjection until 1900 whereas industry was not. Despite this confusion, the periodisation is used to draw out implications for the class struggle and revolution.
In the period of formal subjection, which it appears covers the 19th century, there was no hope of revolution. The working class could only attempt to protect its position by struggles for betterment of its conditions within capitalism. It was thus affirming its position as a class within capitalism as one pole of the labour/capital relation. It was unable to negate its class position and thereby overthrow the labour capital relationship. It was not yet a revolutionary class. The period of real subjection, they argue, sees capitalist subjection extend not just to the labour process but to all aspects of life.
"The value-form and the social relations that instantiate it invades every “pore” of civil society, of socio-cultural and political existence, subjecting them to its imperatives."8
Integration of the working class into capitalism?
The result of this is that the working class becomes ever more integrated into capitalism. In all aspects of its life it is dominated by capital. The Italian Autonomist theorists who preceded the communisation school, and whom the school admired, drew out some of the conclusions of the idea of total social domination by capital. Mario Tronti9 , for example, concluded society had become one big factory producing surplus value for capital throughout society, while Antonio Negri, another theorist of the Autonomists, took the analysis one step further and concluded this meant the end of the centrality of the factory working class as the site of the emergence of revolutionary subjectivity. Revolutionary consciousness would thus not emerge from the class at the point of exploitation. Endnotes explains:
"We can no longer appeal to the notion of class consciousness. We are forced to confront the fact that the working class is a class of this mode of production, unified only in separation."10
This can only mean the working class is integrated into capitalism becoming a class for capital by real subjection. A host of statements confirm this is the conclusion of most of the communisers. For example Endnotes tells us that the wage form is no longer the locus of contestation11 , that science and … engineering have replaced labour at the heart of the production process.12 If workers are no longer at the centre of the production process one can only wonder how surplus value is being produced and what has happened to the theory of value. We are also told that there has been a disappearance of any positive worker identity. Workers, they claim, are no longer a vital force instead they have become appendages of machines. The basis of working class unity has been eroded. The proletariat is atomised. There is no collective worker13 , no revolutionary subject.14
Because of the extraction of relative surplus value and consequent expulsion of workers from the productive process, communisers conclude there has been a relative decline in the productive working class which is becoming an absolute decline. The productive working class, they argue, is no longer the motive force of revolution. It is a fallacy that the development of capitalism unifies the working class, rather it atomises it. The proletariat has become a mass of surplus population, no longer even a reserve army of labour, but a human mass that can never be integrated into productive work. The proletariat has become jobless, landless, powerless, homeless and undocumented.15
We appear to have reached the conclusion that the revolution could not have been made during the period of formal subjection because the class antagonism was undeveloped but neither could it be made in the period of real subjection because the productive proletariat was integrated into capitalist productive and social relations and the proletariat as a whole was an atomised, broken mass of surplus humanity.
The programmes of the working class, which were developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were developed under conditions of formal subjection and, the communisers argue, sought to affirm the working class condition within capitalism. They sought to generalise the productive working class and integrate all into productive work in a republic of labour. They did not aim to explode the labour capital relationship and contained within themselves the seeds of counter-revolution. They are consequently completely redundant. This is why, they claim, we have nothing to learn from previous revolutionary attempts. The programmatic working class movement is dead. In particular the steps envisaged to construct communist society which were, broadly, establishing a proletarian political organisation, initiating mass strikes leading to workers’ councils, then revolt, then taking of political power by force of arms and instituting a transition to communist society, are all things of the past. More than being things of the past support for them is now reactionary. This is especially true of the transition period which Marx argued for in his Critique of the Gotha Programme and which the communisers argue would lead straight back to capitalism.16 Bruno Astarian, a theorist of communisation writes:
"One wonders how this gross fiction [of a transitional period – CWO] could delude people for such a long time."17
Marx, the communisers argue, was even wrong to identify with the 19th century workers’ movement since it was a movement for emancipating the proletariat within capitalism.18 Instead, the argument goes, the revolution must abolish both the proletariat and the bourgeoisie and introduce full communism19 immediately. But if these are not mere words the revolutionary force to overthrow capitalist social relations must be identified. This must be a class with material interests which compel it to revolt against its conditions but also a class on which the capitalist system is dependent. An exploited class providing the material wealth which sustains its exploiters is required, in Marx’s words, a class in radical chains. A class which is only able to break its chains by tearing the entire system to pieces. The only class which fits this categorisation is the productive working class which the communisers have more or less written off. The productive working class are able to stop capitalism operating through striking and able to give a lead to the unemployed and the surplus population in the revolutionary process. The communisers have, however, provided a general description of how communisation might come about.
Bruno Astarian, in his text “Crisis Activity and Communisation”20 has the merit of stating issues clearly rather than wrapping them up in a maze of mind numbing abstraction, so we will quote from him at length. What appears to be envisaged is a complete breakdown of capitalist society in which the system becomes unable to provide even the basic needs of the proletariat. The proletariat will, Astarian says, be forced to rise up and find another social form capable of restoring its socialisation and immediate reproduction. There will be a phase of what he calls crisis activity leading to the overcoming of the labour/capital contradiction and at the same time to communisation. In crisis activity the proletariat will take possession of factories, vehicles and buildings and refuse to work. Because of deskilling the proletariat is incapable of taking over the means of production. If they were to hand over the management to a particular category of workers these workers would become the collective capitalist and communisation would fail. Hence the need to abolish wage labour and work itself, fixed capital and the state. He cites the Bangladesh textile strikes where workers burned down factories as the indication of refusal to work21 which indicates what crisis activity would bring. Riots without demands such as the French riots in the banlieues, demands for severance pay instead of demands for jobs, the CPE struggles in France22 are all indications of how crisis activity will develop.
No workers’ councils or neighbourhood councils will be formed.23 The proletariat will produce forms of struggle with “imagination”! There will be no programme and no planning. Localism as in Spain 1936 will prevail. By multiplying the seats of struggle the state will be dislocated and unable to resist. The problem of taking power disappears and there is no transition period. There will be no accounting. Looted and requisitioned products will be distributed without counting.
In this fantastic scenario we see an admiration for rioting, plundering and looting which indicates multi-class struggles are what is envisaged. The surplus population carries through these measures. The productive working class, which as we have been told is a broken, atomised, and degenerating mass, participates by refusing to work but does not lead. No workers’ councils are formed. The communisers wash their hands of the problems of organisation of the proletariat and, of course, of bourgeois resistance. The result is mystical wishful thinking and we wonder, in Astarian’s own words, how this fiction could delude anyone!
We have a vision of communism without work, without organisation, without planning and without accounting. How could 7.8 billion people on the planet exist without working to provide for basic needs, without organisation and without planning to collectively satisfy those needs?
But these absurdities are actually the outcome of some of the theoretical issues which we have mentioned. A key issue is work itself and accounting for labour or the products of labour. Any form of accounting, even simply by time needed to perform tasks, is seen as a reintroduction of value, and so a Trojan horse leading back to capitalism.
The value-form and the abolition of work
Under capitalist social relations, and only under capitalist social relations, labour is expressed in value. The duration of the average necessary labour time required for production of a product is transferred to the product as value. In this process concrete labour becomes abstract labour which gives products their exchange value. The production process creates all the value which is crystalised in the product. The exchange process realises the value already attached to the product during the production process. Value is not created in the exchange process. Abstract labour time thus becomes the measure of value expressed in exchange-value. Communisers maintain that the traditional Marxist view of communism does not involve the abolition of abstract labour and that Marx himself maintains abstract labour in the period of transition as outlined in his Critique of the Gotha Programme. What is being maintained, they argue, is an affirmation of the proletariat as producer of value not the abolition of the proletarian condition and more insidiously the period of transition is intended to transform other classes into proletarians cementing capitalist relations.
Value-form theorists argue the entire social process, including the activity of the working class, is dominated by the value-form.24 This is a consequence of real subjection discussed above. Value, they claim, pre-exists and has priority over labour. Value-form posits labour as its content. In a society no longer dominated by alienated social forms the compulsion to labour will disappear; hence the idea that communisation will abolish work. From this conclusion follows the notion of abolishing accounting and planning. Astarian tells us that:
"If nothing is accounted for there is no exchange value … time will not count. It won’t matter if projects are a total mess."25
The affirmation of labour as an organising principle of communist society means, communisers argue, abstract labour time remains and capitalism is not abolished. But even if the value-form posits labour as its content this does not mean that all labour necessarily takes the form of value. In the Middle Ages the labour of serfs and vassals did not take the form of value. Time labouring on the lord’s fields or products delivered to the suzerain were not accounted in value terms. In the first volume of Capital Chapter 1 Marx gives the example of patriarchal peasant family to illustrate how various sorts of labour within the family are direct social functions and the products are not commodities nor does labour take the form of value though the labour is measured in time. Use values are produced as social products and shared as social products within the family. Communist society will similarly produce social use values for distribution and use by the associated producers. Although labour exists, this does not mean such a society is dominated by the value-form. What has been ignored, in all this, is the social relations under which labour is performed. Gilles Dauvé also argued that any form of accounting for labour would lead back to capitalism:
"Labour time is capitalist blood labour time, it is the substance of value."26
He arrived at that conclusion by asserting that use-value was an analytic category which contained exchange value. Hence producing use-values would necessarily produce exchange values and therefore abstract labour measured in labour time. Value-form theorists, on the other hand, argue value is a form which posits labour as its content and reach the same conclusion. Hence different communisers reach the same conclusion by different theoretical routes which indicates that the conclusion was probably arrived at before the theory to justify it was generated.
Despite saying work will be abolished by communisation, even the communisers cannot seriously think that mankind can survive in any form of society without work. Labour represents the necessary real link between humanity and nature. Astarian himself recognises that:
"For a relation between men to be social in the fundamental sense, it has to include a reproductive relationship with nature."27
A reproductive relationship with nature is another way of saying work or labour is required to produce from nature what we need to survive. But according to Astarian work cannot exist without exploitation28 so rather than calling it work, he calls it totalising activity:
"Totalizing activity – in which humans do not have to give up enjoying their relationship because they produce something."29
Totalising activity is work without productivity, without standardisation, without measurement by time without supervision, without planning and so on. These are all the things which, we are warned, bring back value production and with it capitalism. When one remembers that there is to be no transition period and this Utopian vision of work is to be introduced at once one can understand why even Astarian admits:
"Much remains to be done to understand why and how communisation will get production under way again without productivist measures."30
In other words he himself has serious doubts about his prescriptions. Communist society will, of course, abolish wage labour but will still require useful labour, i.e. labour producing use-values. It is simply incorrect to say that all labour entails exploitation, also incorrect is the assertion that integrating parasitic classes into useful labour is the same as converting them into proletarians. This integration would be part of the process of the abolition of class society. Whether labour is exploited or not depends on the social relations under which the labour is performed.
Productive working class – still the only force for communism
Communisers see the world as deindustrialising and the productive working class as shrinking not only relative to the proletariat as a whole but also shrinking absolutely. Endnotes goes even further, and suggests the productive working class is no longer the main productive force, its place having been taken by science.31 These considerations lead communisers to doubt the revolutionary potential of the productive working class.
But capitalism, however it restructures, globalises, stratifies or otherwise reforms itself cannot do without the productive working class since this is the only source of surplus value and thus the only way its capital can be valorised. The system would collapse if the productive working class stopped producing surplus value. The tendency to exclude workers from the productive process, which is a result of the falling rate of profit, simply expresses the system’s contradictions and its inevitable tendency to crisis and breakdown.
Objectively, the conditions for global revolution today are better than ever before and certainly better than 1917. The weight of the peasantry has been massively reduced and it no longer represents a significant counter-revolutionary political force. The globalisation in the period since the 70s has produced a working class that is more unified than ever before. Production has become internationally integrated and a collective effort. We also dispute the communisers’ assertion that the productive global working class is shrinking. Richard Freeman, a Harvard University academic, estimates that the entry of China, India and the Soviet bloc to the world market in the 1990s resulted in 1.47 billion additional workers becoming available to global capital. Critically these workers brought very little capital with them thus reducing the global organic composition of capital. This increased the global workforce to 3 billion.32 Current figures from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) for 2018 give a global workforce of 3.5 billion, a further 500 million increase from the figure produced by R. Freeman. Of these 3.5 billion the ILO tells us, 3.3 billion are employed, 172 million unemployed and a further 140 million not available for work or have given up looking for a job.33 While we accept that these figures do not define the productive workforce, they simply give those employed by capital, they are reason to doubt the idea that it is shrinking. Further, if the productive workforce were in absolute decline the global surplus value produced would also be in absolute decline and capitalist accumulation would be in absolute decline. This would be reflected in declining global growth but this is certainly not the case.
The question we have to answer is how can the working class, which is a class of capitalist society, abolish that society while being an integral part of it? To answer this the mystical thinking of the communisers looked at above is just a way of avoiding difficult issues. What is lacking today is the subjective consciousness of the need to overthrow the present rotten system and build a higher organisation of production, namely communism. This can only arise through a massive period of struggle against a system in crisis. The struggle will start as a struggle for basic class needs, that is to say a struggle for life within the system. The communisers will object that such a struggle is only a struggle to affirm the working class as a class within capitalism and cannot lead to overthrow of capitalism. But we have to start from where we are, from reality not from dreams. Only when the struggle for basic needs cannot be satisfied will the struggle take a revolutionary direction. But for this to occur these struggles need to become political and for this to occur a revolutionary political organisation and revolutionary political intervention are required. A revolutionary political organisation will not appear automatically34 , as communiser theorists imagine, it needs to be built and linked to the working class before these struggles break out. If this does not happen we know from the past that the bourgeoisie is very able to turn revolutionary energies into the path of nationalism and war.
The communisation school retains some influence because it offers a credible explanation for two significant issues. The first is the decline of the industrial working class in the metropolitan countries and the consequent decline in class struggle. The second is the changes in capitalism as a system in its historical development. The second issue is theorised in the formal/real subjection theory which appears as an alternative to the decadence theory which was initiated in the Third International (but it quickly soon abandoned in practice as it sought to integrate the USSR into the capitalist world order). However, in our opinion what is being presented is a myopic European view not a global one. As we have attempted to show, communisers extend the real subjection of the labour process to the subjection of the entire social reproduction process, material, intellectual and cultural. The next step is the integration of the working class into capitalism as a class for capital. We consider this step has already been taken by some of the communisation school. They see the production process become ever more efficient, rendering workers ever more superfluous to it. Workers become no longer the sole producers of value and so no longer a revolutionary force. Hence the flirtation with rioting and looting.
But the outcome of all this is removal of the proletariat from a position as a revolutionary class. Instead a completely mystical explanation of how revolution and communisation would come about is concocted. The communisers do not have a strategy for exiting capitalist society. The real and difficult problems of class consciousness, political organisation, bourgeois power and a period of transition are simply brushed aside as non-problems. What this represents is disillusionment and a cry of despair.
- 1The group Internationalist Perspective (IP), for example, split from the Internationalist Communist Current (ICC) in 1985 being “centrist towards councilism”. They thus already rejected the need for a communist organisation but it would be a number of years before they would shake off their residual Luxemburgism in economics (to embrace value-form analysis) and embrace many of the theoretical positions of this school. The commonality lies in the rejection of political organisation.
- 2Endnotes 1, p.4
- 3See Endnotes 4, p.75
- 4See Gilles Dauvé, Eclipse and re-emergence of the communist movement, p.105
- 6Capital Volume 1, p.689 Progress Edition
- 7Capital Volume 1, p.478 Progress Edition
- 8See Internationalist Perspective, The world as we see it
- 9See out texts on Autonomism: Autonomism – Cutting the Ground from under Marxism and Autonomism – “Many Flowers Little Fruit”
- 10Endnotes 4, p.166
- 11Endnotes 1, p.19
- 12Endnotes 4, p.184
- 13Endnotes 4, p.174. Internationalist Perspective disagrees with this. For them real subjection has eliminated the distinction between the productive working class and the non-productive producing the collective worker.
- 14Endnotes 3, p.247
- 15Gilles Dauvé, Eclipse and re-emergence of the communist movement, p.140
- 16A critique of some of the objections to the transition period have been made in Communist Society, Value, labour and time: a reply to Gilles Dauvé
- 17Bruno Astarian, Crisis activity and communisation
- 18See Endnotes 2, p.97, this is a conclusion drawn by the value-form Marxists.
- 19Full communism is what Marx envisaged as the final outcome of the period of transition in his Critique of the Gotha Programme.
- 20Bruno Astarian, Crisis activity and communisation
- 21The textile workers were rioting over not being paid. They were rioting for their rights within the system. Burning factories was an attack on the capitalist owners for non-payment of wages, not a refusal to work.
- 22See Reflections on the student movement in France
- 23Bruno Astarian, Crisis activity and communisation
- 24Yet Endnotes 4, p 146 see the value-form as obsolescent and human labour no longer the main productive force. Science has taken labour’s place. This is justified by the fragment on machines written in 1858, 9 years before Capital Volume 1. Communisation is led thus to doubt the revolutionary potential of the working class.
- 25Bruno Astarian, Crisis activity and communisation
- 26See Gilles Dauvé “Value time and communism” in the Eclipse and re-emergence of the communist movement
- 27Bruno Astarian, Value and its abolition
- 31Endnotes 4, p.146
- 32See Labor Market Imbalances, Harvard University paper, Richard Freeman.
- 34See Gilles Dauvé, Eclipse and re-emergence of the communist movement, p.105