Ok, it seems like there are a couple of small misunderstandings here that can be quickly addressed, and some more substantive differences in terms of class analysis and the relation of class to other 'oppressions.'

Submitted by Joseph Kay on August 13, 2009

I’ll first try and clear up the misunderstandings and then get into the more substantive stuff.

Vision and Strategy
The first minor point of misunderstanding relates to the meaning of ‘vision.’ You separate vision – ends – from strategy – means. I would contend such a neat delineation is untenable. Ends are made of means – some means get us closer to what we want, others make it more remote. As the libcom group, we do not spend much time dreaming of the future – our politics are very much oriented to the here and now. Now it is true that having some idea of what a future society could look like can persuade others we’re not just idle dreamers, nihilists who are against everything but don't know what we're for. But a fully worked-out vision of the future is not a prerequisite for workers to struggle to advance their concrete material interests. I doubt many of the workers who have made revolutions in the past started off as revolutionaries.

Of course as struggles grow, the importance of just which direction they should take – vision – grows too, and so it cannot be neglected. However, in the here and now we have a more immediate vision – for workers to struggle collectively to advance our interests. To this end we strategise; we try and network with other workers and spread propaganda advocating libertarian communist tactics – collective direct action and mass meetings with mandated/recallable delegate councils to co-ordinate the struggle. As and when this vision of mass assemblies is realised – as it was during the anti-CPE struggle in France on 2006 – the more long-term vision becomes more tangible and more meaningful to the participants, who begin to feel their power to change the world and to imagine what that world may be like.

Needs and wants
A second terminological misunderstanding to tidy up. ‘Needs’ in ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’ does not mean mere physiological needs as distinct from wants. Needs are self determined, encompassing everything from the physiological to the psychological to the social, and everyone has an equal right to have their needs met. In terms of how this allocation could work and deal with any issues of scarcity, I've discussed this and other ‘economic’ issues much more comprehensively in my response to your vision. The structure of this debate could create much duplication, so I suggest we pre-empt that and continue this particular discussion there.

Race, sex, class…?
You say I “might be making the mistake of assuming that racial, gender and political groups are less important agents for social change than class.” I think you misunderstand my meaning, and this series in fact obscures more than it reveals (and perhaps explains the misunderstanding). There is an odd one out; a different logic is at work with class politics. Whereas racial, gender, sexuality etc groups are striving to turn antagonism into difference, class politics tries to turn difference into antagonism. Whereas race- or gender-based struggles strive for recognition as equals and for co-existence; class struggle aims not at workers and bosses all getting along, but on the contrary aggravating their differences to the point of rupture and social revolution. It seems to me in its haste to declare all groups equal your perspective of ‘complimentary holism’ has no place for class antagonism.

Capitalism is a class relation, and class struggle is the only way to break out of it - by ultimately rejecting our condition as human resources and asserting ourselves as human beings. This can only be done with the abolition of social classes altogether. It’s not about saying class is more important than other things, but about understanding what capitalism is and where potential revolutionary subjectivity arises. It is not from oppression, but from alienation – the separation of producers from product, of activity from the meaning and control of that activity. The working class are potentially revolutionary subjects because of our material position within capitalist society; we've nothing to lose but our chains.

Many groups are oppressed, but racism, sexism etc are not essential to capitalism and demands for equality can be accommodated within it – indeed such demands are made by large sections of the ruling class. So while we get racist immigration controls, we also get black bosses, politicians and presidents. Female workers consistently earn less than their male counterparts, but this is made illegal. Margaret Thatcher being a woman didn't make her any less capitalist etc. In fact the recent Obamamania demonstrates just how useful these kind of egalitarian sentiments can be - when divorced from class analysis - for rebuilding shattered illusions in the system.

This is not to say capitalism does not make use of these divisions which predate it. Clearly it does, and racism and sexism are unfortunate facts of life. However capitalism is not inherently white, male, heterosexual etc, and therefore members of these groups have no more inherent potential for revolutionary subjectivity than white heterosexual males do. As I have said, that derives from alienation, not oppression. Now class struggle – and therefore the replacement of capitalism with a society fit for human habitation - won’t get very far if workers are divided by ‘race,’ gender etc, and this is why I said that “the struggle against these divisions is therefore a necessary aspect of class struggle.”

In this respect, while only class struggle can replace capitalism with a libertarian communist society, it absolutely must incorporate simultaneous struggles against racial, gender etc divides - a process which has been visible during many class struggles of the 20th Century (the Mujeres Libres, League of Revolutionary Black Workers, Grunwick). So while we would take issue with any notion of a 'hierarchy of struggle', it's only by acting as a class where our potential revolutionary agency can be manifested, where these intra-class divisions can be negated rather than reinforced.

Central to modern communitarian politics and social control is the idea of 'celebrating diversity' - emphasising the differences between various groups and treating them as homogenous 'communities' without internal class divisions, adequately represented by a layer of small capitalists and professionals. The 'equality of struggles' - more accurately the relegation of class to just another struggle, an identity as constructed as race or gender rather than a material position - allows all these struggles to be co-opted and accommodated.

‘Complimentary holism’ seems to be a radical variant of this ideology; taking the capitalist division of social life into distinct spheres as given. The autonomy of the economy is based on the separation of producers from product. Politics is based on the separation of rulers and ruled. Overcoming these separations will mean abolishing these divisions of social life, and this cannot be done if they are made central to our analysis.

I’m not sure what you mean by “political groups.” If you mean politicised minorities such as ourselves, then we certainly have a role to play – largely in the propagation of our ideas (hence us running libcom!). But we are not agents of social change in our capacity as ‘political groups,’ but in our material position as workers (whether employed or not). In terms of revolutionary subjectivity, all groups are not created equal – although women, ethnic minorities, politicos etc are for the most part workers too. This has nothing to do with “dogmatically ideological prediction,” and everything to do with a rational, critical understanding of what the capitalist social relation is and how it might be ruptured.

For what it’s worth, just because a struggle may not have revolutionary potential does not make it of no interest to libertarian communists. We are interested in advancing our concrete material needs as a class; something like the struggle to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland would fit this category, without ever having revolutionary implications. However, a practice of asserting our class’ concrete material needs in general does, because a society based on human needs is in fundamental contradiction to one based on the endless accumulation of capital.

Bipolar vs three-class analysis
You write “‘us and them’… implies a two class system. This outlook, I think derives from a limited conceptual toolbox that is quite typical of the old left.” Firstly I’m not sure who you mean by old left? The 57 varieties of Trotskyist vanguard party? Anarcho-syndicalists? Council communists? Zapata’s peasant insurgency? Makhno’s? All of the above? In any event I am not describing a two-class system, but a bipolar one. I will have to explain in a bit more detail what is meant by this, before returning to explain the usage of ‘us and them.’

Firstly, to recap on what capital is, as briefly as possible: money making more money. But this doesn’t happen by alchemy, but by human labour, which has the capacity to produce more than is needed to sustain it, a surplus which is appropriated to expand the original capital advanced. This establishes two poles of a spectrum. At the one end, those with nothing to sell but their capacity to work and nothing to lose but their chains. At the other, those with the capital to hire workers to expand their capital. Thus capital isn't just money in motion, but a social relation between classes. It is dead labour, which vampire-like sucks the life out of the living. This is the kind of analysis you find in the first few chapters of Marx’s Capital, and I believe is what you are referring to as an ‘old left two class system’ view. But our analysis does not stop here. Indeed it has only just begun.

In order to accumulate capital, the capitalist must compete in the market with other capitalists. They cannot afford to ignore market forces, or they will lose ground to their rivals, lose money, and ultimately cease to be a capitalist. Therefore capitalists are not really in control of capitalism, capital itself is. Thus both poles of the social relation are alienated, but in a qualitatively different way. While at the workers end alienation is experienced through the impositions of the boss, at the other it is experienced through impersonal market forces. The fancy name for this process by which inanimate objects come to dominate actual living subjects is an ‘ontological inversion.’ It is on account of this inversion that we can talk about capital as if it has agency, and as we shall see this is more precise than talking about capitalists.

Now it is true that on this spectrum, there are those who are hired by capitalists to manage their capital, but own no capital themselves (the ‘techno-managerial class’ in your parlance). What matters for the time being is that they are on this bipolar spectrum. Knowledge is certainly a part of these individuals' power, but it is a power exercised within the bipolar social relation. For what it’s worth, knowledge as a source of power within class society is not in itself a new insight – it was theorised over a century ago how the development of automation and factory production was driven by the need to undermine the power of the craft workers guilds, which was largely based on the knowledge essential to production which they jealously guarded.

There are also still peasants and aristocrats in the world. The important thing once more is that these classes too increasingly become arrayed along this bipolar spectrum. Peasants are dispossessed and become landless agricultural workers, or migrate to the cities. Aristocrats become real estate capitalists, or watch their estates fall into disrepair and cease to be aristocrats altogether. Capital - this vampire-like, bipolar social relation implied the simple notion of money making more money – comes to dominate and restructure social life in its interests.

Us and them
So how then do I square a notion of ‘us and them’ with my insistence I am not describing a two class system? It derives from workers experience in capitalism; ‘they’ are the personifications of capital through which this object exercises its agency as per the ontological inversion described above. Usually, the personification of capital is the boss. The boss may be a shareholding capitalist, or a hired manager. Under other circumstances we face union bureaucrats as the personifications of capital, as they divide and diffuse our struggles. Politicians, ‘community leaders,’ or in the case of co-ops operating in a market, workers themselves can also become the personifications of capital. They are compelled to act in the interests of capital by their structural position within the bipolar capital relation.

This is not a problem of “working class organisations… often dominated by members of the coordinator class.” A union leader for example could have a background as salt of the earth as they come, but still become the personification of capital due to their structural role in capitalist society. The same is true of ‘techno-managerial’ hirelings, politicians and capitalists themselves. You agreed with me when I said “the function of a class analysis is to understand the tensions within capitalist society” as opposed to classifying individuals into two, three (or four or five) classes. This is what it means.

This is not to say that you cannot describe bosses who don’t own capital as distinct from those that do. Clearly there is a distinction. I would argue whether we theorise this as a class distinction or a division of labour within those who personify capital is of secondary importance to the fact this takes place within a bipolar social relation and the us an them nature of struggles this implies. You say “the coordinator class can (and have been) anti-capitalist.” I would say this is only true in the absolute narrowest sense of ‘capitalist’ as ‘those who own capital.’ Being anti-capitalist does not mean being against those individuals, but against the whole social relation, against class society as such.

Anti-capitalism is not workers managing the economy in place of capitalists (or ‘co-ordinators’) but the abolition of ourselves as a class, the economy as a separate sphere of social life and the communisation of social production around our needs. Non-owning bosses taking the place of owning ones is no more anti-capitalist than a management buy-out, only potentially more violent and perhaps roping workers in to do the dirty work (as so tragically often workers die for one or other section of the ruling class, particularly in war). But the role of the personification of capital persists, in the firm bought out by its management as in the USSR. This is because capitalism is a mode of production not a mode of management. Therefore anti-capitalism has to go beyond opposition to those who manage it (juxtaposing a participatory economy to a ‘co-ordinatorist’ or capitalist one), to opposition to the social relation as such (the abolition of wage labour, politics and the economy as a separate spheres of social life; libertarian communism).

You write that “this clarity [three classes] is useful in a number of ways. It helps us understand where socialists went wrong in the twentieth century and it helps us develop better strategy for the twenty-first century.” However, while I welcome the desire not to retread the cul-de-sacs of Leninism, this overlooks the fact that many in the 20th century workers movement – particularly anarchists – argued against the idea that the state or any form of representation could abolish capitalism. Perhaps more significantly it ignores that what happened in Russia in 1917 wasn’t an unforeseen side-effect of workers relying on ‘co-ordinators,’ but a conscious policy of state capitalism pursued by the Bolsheviks, the consequences of which were broadly predicted by anarchists, who had argued such an approach would just replace many capitalists with one – the state – not replace capitalist social relations with communist ones. The precise nature of the USSR is a big question, and a big tangent. Good sources include the Anarchist FAQ, Aufheben’s 4-part series1 and Maurice Brinton’s ‘The Bolsheviks and Workers Control’, all of which explain how the social relations remained fundamentally capitalist, with the state taking the place of individual owners.

We certainly do need to theorise the conditions in which we find ourselves in light of past failures. I would simply say I don’t think this requires a third class, and in fact this ‘innovation’ seems to distract from the necessity and importance of class antagonism, relegating class to just another oppression and posing the anti-capitalist task as simply a question of management – by capitalists, co-ordinators or ourselves? - not social revolution. We are not trying to make the same world more participatory, but to create a new one in its place.

There is much more I could write about, such as the tendency for society to polarise into haves and have nots, and the counter-tendencies stratifying individuals along the spectrum through the proliferation of minor hierarchies (team leaders etc) and the division of the ruling class into idle shareholders and bosses you call ‘techno-managerial.’ But I’ve probably said enough for now, and I’m sure we can return to these issues if they prove relevant to the discussion as it develops.

  • 1 Published in issues #6-9, available at