Introduction: The Alternative

Submitted by libcom on July 30, 2005

All human societies generate an order of one kind or another, but at the same time produce the negation of this order. Opposition to the established order is an historical phenomenon in two ways. Firstly, both in form and content it is the expression of a given era; secondly, it can never be anything but the expression of its era. Consequently, claims to universality or to timelessness merely display a false consciousness that presents the quest for historically limited power in the guise of radicality.

Negation of the social system occurs on many levels, from simple unformulated activity, which breaks down immediate reality, to fully elaborated revolutionary theory, via a range of intermediate stages. The shift from pure action to pure thought is barely perceptible, and it is impossible to determine precisely the point at which consciousness of action leads to the formulation of coherent theory.

The kind of radical opposition that challenges the very foundations of power structures probably existed even in primitive societies. Vico, in his Scienza Nuova (1725), claims to perceive it in his interpretation of ancient myths. Every type of society has had to contend with challenges of this kind, and the old mole has taken a great many shapes and forms in the course of history: heresy, millenarianism, peasant risings, Luddite riots and machine-smashing. The common factor of all these past revolts -- apart from their corrosive effect on the established order -- was their inability to see themselves as revolutionary phenomena. They were not sufficiently conscious of their historical character. Most frequently their development was determined by some hoped-for bliss in the hereafter rather than concrete changes in the here-and-now. The radicality of the revolutionary movement was already there, but modestly concealed behind a veil of mysticism or religion.

The manifestations gradually gave way to a clearer formulation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the overthrow of the existing social order became the principal objective. As a result, politics emerged as a specialized field, concentrating and expressing men's desire for change.

The French Revolution and its ideologists mark the first steps towards unity between political thought and political action, but even so, radical theory remained wrapped in a cocoon of outward appearances. Negation of society may have been less mediatized than in the past, but it was still heavily disguised, and political discourse merely replaced theological discourse (whether deist or pantheist). Certainly men were now equal before the law as well as before their creator, but the idealistic phraseology of the Declaration of the Rights of Man simply concealed the fact that inequality still existed, in a rearranged form. Behind the enunciation of universal ideals (liberty, equality, fraternity, rights of the individual) lurked the protection of utterly material and contingent interests. The capitalist bourgeoisie which hoisted itself to power in the early nineteenth century announced a complete programme of liberation, expressed in terms of ideals. What in fact it then went on to establish was an unlimited freedom to exploit the infant industrial proletariat.

Nineteenth-century socialist systems, and especially Marxism, were already using historical rather than eschatological language. In their demonstrations of the inevitable development of the industrial era, of class society and its miseries, Saint-Simonism, Fourierism and Marxism explored and analysed the potential forces of their age and its forthcoming contradictions.

Like most of his generation, Marx was infatuated with science, and made tremendous efforts to furnish his theory with all the attributes of a scientific system. In this he was closer to Auguste Comte or to Herbert Spencer than he would have cared to admit.

For Marx was really the product of positivism, and he was inclined to scientism the moment he tried to hedge his thought about with guarantees of infallibility. In that sense Marxism is a perfect example of scientist ideology, foreshadowing modern technocracy -- it shares with Saint-Simonism the honour of being studied by French polytechnicians, English Labour economists and Swedish trade unionists alike.

Not content with claiming to be a scientific theory, however, Marxism seeks to establish itself as the scientific theory of social evolution This ideological imperialism rejects any conceivable critique in advance, demoting revolutionary voluntarism to the role of mere adjunct. The celebrated 'final shove required to give birth to the new society is relegated to a secondary role as compared with the evolution of the objective conditions categorically laid down and delimited by Marxism. According to Marx, the march of history and the expropriation of the capitalists 'is accomplished by the action of the immanent laws of capitalist production'.

The latter 'begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation'. (1) The ineluctability of the historical process means that we can deduce forthcoming events from a set of laws (of which Marx was the discoverer); better, it makes prophecy and forecasting possible, thus providing us with the one and only reading of social reality. It was only natural, therefore, that Marxism should end up by acquiring a corps of official interpreters of dogma, somewhat reminiscent of religion with its prophets, its scholars and its infallible theologians.

Which is not to say that Marxism, insofar as it is an analysis of social reality, is devoid of scientific logic. Marx's approach was scientific in that he studied the society of his time empirically (which was a novelty when one thinks of Auguste Comte's metaphysics, then considered to be the last word in bourgeois social science), and especially from an economic standpoint. It was not scientific where he attributed universal or timeless value to his propositions.

Engels, with Marx's approval, even wanted to apply the dialectical method to nature as a whole and to turn Marxism into a cosmogony. So we have a new ideology, stated this time in historical and political terms, but which nonetheless seeks to impose itself on men and things ad aeternitatem. Here, though, the imposture is no longer justified by religion and its godheads, but by science and its certitudes.

Marx's claims for the scientific character of his system arise out of the nature of his project. For all ideologies tend to hide their particularist essence (the expression of the interests and aspirations of a specific class) beneath a cloak of universal generosity. The mystification lies in making the victims believe they are (or will be) the beneficiaries of the promised liberation.

From the middle of the last century onwards, Marx's thought was increasingly and definitively deformed by economism and determinism. For one thing, the failure of the 1848-49 revolutions in Europe destroyed Marx's confidence in the spontaneous action of the proletariat. His doctrine ceased to relate to the whole of social reality, and he began to concentrate on analysing this reality from an economic viewpoint. Secondly, he came to see social transformations as merely the result of the evolution of the material forces underlying the economic structures, rather than of the autonomous action of workers in conflict with their social environment.

Marx clearly showed the mystifying character of classical political economy, reducing it to its historical dimensions and relating it to the emerging age of (competitive) industrial capitalism. He then went on to explain the functioning of the economic system in terms of economic sociology, inferring from it a projection into the future that is partly true and partly false. He was not mistaken in perceiving a trend towards socialism (large economic units, the attachment of decision-making centres to a central institution, monopolistic markets). But he presents this as ineluctable and positive, arguing that it will bring about the liberation of all those who are exploited and the elimination of classes. But Marx here reverts to ideology, for his analysis fails to mention the real beneficiaries of this evolution, namely the bureaucratic class, which is the product of industrial society, and which is bound to seek to dominate this society. Above all, he confuses the new ruling class with the proletariat. For the latter remains oppressed, even if in new ways.

In the event, the proletariat is simply the auxiliary of this new class in the passage from competitive capitalism to State socialism (or capitalism): from the proletariat, it draws its delegates, its theoreticians and secretaries, while in turn it enriches the ruling class with its own higher bureaucratized strata, which are already cut off from proletarian reality. Above all, the proletariat places its might and its revolutionary potential at the disposal of the bureaucratic class. History is filled with examples of this kind of camouflage (notably in France, between 1792 and 1794), but its true extent became clear in 1848, in Paris, when the democratic bourgeoisie allied with the extra-mural proletariat (2) in February, only to march against it in June alongside the reactionary bourgeoisie.

From the 1850s onwards, Marxist ideology tended to distort social reality, narrowing it down in line with the ambitions of the rising intellectual bourgeoisie. Thus, Marxist critique, as we pointed out earlier, is reduced to a critique of economic reality. And this is no accident, for all ideologies bear the stamp of the rationality best suited to the interests of the (in this case, future) dominant class. Here, of course, the rationality in question is that of profit and production. Marx accused competitive capitalism not only of reducing the proletariat to a state of misery but of failing to exploit to the full the potential of the existing factors of production. Social revolution for Marx, was to be a process of rationalization aimed at eliminating all obstacles to the untrammelled development of production (3) by freeing the factors of production from their institutional strait-jacket (private ownership of the means of production, competitive markets). This productivist view of the economy is most congenial to the bureaucratic class (managers, politicians, executives, officers, leaders of workers' and socialist organizations), which has everything to gain from the improved organization of industry and wage-labour. One way or another, this bureaucratic class ends up as both boss and beneficiary.

By dressing itself up as an ideology of human emancipation, Marxism managed to get itself accepted as the theory of reality; at first by the sheer force of its arguments and the critical vigour of its concepts; subsequently, more through physical violence and propaganda, when Marxism became the official ideology of the Soviet State and of the Communist International. Seen in the light of a century and a half of capitalist evolution, Marxism dearly emerges as the ideology of a class aspiring to political leadership. (4)


For the past hundred years the industrial proletariat has been struggling to obtain integration into bourgeois civilization. Today this has been achieved; the proletariat is no longer hanging around the gates of mercantile society, having gradually been absorbed from within. In other words, having made possible the accumulation of capital necessary for industrialization (he was after all the principal actor in the process), the worker has finally got his share of the cake. Marxism (and syndicalism) served as the theoretical instrument in this process of integration, enabling the proletariat to devise its strategy for the conquest of the bourgeois stronghold.

Whether in the guise of social-democracy, Bolshevism, Maoism, Fidelism, etc., Marxism served as a theoretical tool insofar as the integration of the proletariat into industrial civilization did not conflict with its own project, which is aimed at the establishment of State capitalism. In fact, this project can only be achieved if all individuals are completely integrated in such a way that no one is left outside the compass of the imperatives of the system.

In short, the workers have now effectively entered the system en masse in the industrialized countries. The most obvious consequence of this is that the proletarian is no longer merely a producer, but a consumer as well, and that to be the latter is now perhaps his most important function. (5)

As long as the proletariat was held at bay outside the city, its chief ambition was less to destroy than to conquer that city in order to penetrate it and enjoy its fruits. Marxist-Leninist discourse was highly appropriate to the task: 'strategy', 'tactics', 'temporary alliances', 'conquest of power', 'dictatorship of the proletariat' -- the language is that of a state of siege. The Marxist's aversion to the anarchist -- with the latter's preference for bombs over the impedimenta of the siege-train - is symptomatic of his desire to have nothing whatever to do with what Bakunin called the 'destructive passion'. On the contrary, the Marxist is deeply committed to preserving as much as possible; like an anxious heir, his first concern is to ensure the integrity of his future inheritance, in the hope of taking over a smoothly running productive machine.


The advent of mercantile civilization generates a class of proletarians that constitutes both the base and the substratum of this civilization as well as its most natural product. The gathering momentum of industrialization throws fresh strata, whole classes even (peasants, artisans and small shopkeepers) into the ranks of the proletariat. These classes are urbanized, piled wholesale into factories, cut off from their own culture (in the most neutral sense of the term) and reduced to mere survival (that is, to the reproduction of future proletarians and to the minimal maintenance of their own capacity for work, as Ricardo and Marx noted). To this purely physical process must be added spiritual impoverishment and constraint: the bourgeoisie imposes its own scale of values, its rites and its prejudices upon the mass of producers. Indeed, the bourgeoisie maintains its hold upon the proletariat far more by its spiritual power than by force of arms.

But, even though it participated in bourgeois ideology and populated the suburbs around the towns, the proletariat long remained outside bourgeois civilization. It was excluded on a variety of levels, the most visible clearly being the politico-juridical level. For the proletariat had no political being; and when it finally obtained the right to vote and to stand for election, it gave its votes to outsiders: to radical republicans in France, to the Democrats in the United States and the Liberals in England. The proletariat only acquired a leadership of its own shortly before the First World War, which certainly was an advance on the previous situation, even if it meant that the workers simply came under another form of control. But the worker was also deprived of social being, in that his long working days, his living conditions, his family duties and his very poverty prevented him from enjoying genuine social exchange. His exclusion is most spectacular and most crucial, however, in the field of culture: the proletarian is a complete stranger to the world of the bourgeois, since he does not enjoy the conditions of fulfillment afforded by the bourgeois world.

In terms of bourgeois values, the proletarian is a non-being: money after all is principal among these values, and the worker, by definition, is excluded from the sphere of profit. Education comes once the thirst for gain has been satisfied, but the manual worker will seldom get any further than apprenticeship. Finally, the highest sphere of these values contains all those notions we may call 'idealistic' (patriotism, self-sacrifice in the name of a cause, self-cultivation, invention, discovery, etc.) which are extremely important for the established system and which the proletarian, for as long as he remains a member of his class, can neither share in nor make his own.

At the end of this brief balance sheet the proletarian, in the context of classical bourgeois civilization, appears as a one-dimensional being (in a more literal sense than Marcuse employs): he is a producer, and in terms of the predominant conditions of sociality, he is nothing but a producer. As long as he remains exclusively a producer and is deprived of the fruits of his labour, the proletarian can neither realize his own potential nor even acquire another dimension.

For that he must gain access to bourgeois civilization. And that is the real significance of the economic and political struggle which developed along with the process of industrialization. From the setting up of strike funds to the creation of powerful union organizations, from the timid beginnings of a workers' (or labour or social-democrat) party to electoral victories carrying the 'party of the proletariat' to power, all efforts have been directed towards gaining admission to the bourgeois stronghold.

Over the past century or so the proletariat has adopted ruling-class modes of organization, thought and struggle in order to further its integration into the existing structure. The evolution of the capitalist system itself proved a great help in the process. The gradual transformation from a competitive market economy to a monopoly capitalist economy characterized by large units in which the State plays an increasingly active role, means that State planning is now a key component in the mechanism of production, exchange and distribution. As a result, the role of the State is now an integrating one.

In a parallel development. the entire production machine, in its constant quest for new outlets, is progressively turning to the consumer goods sector. The demand for durable and semi-durable goods and for instant consumption is increasing along with the rise in workers' living standards. In countries whose economic infra-structures are broadly established, where demand for producer goods has already reached a certain saturation point and where the colonial market appears increasingly unpredictable, the consumer goods sector has come as a veritable godsend for investors, and is now being 'colonized' in its turn. The so-called consumer societies are precisely those in which the production machine is increasingly adapted to turning out consumer goods, the demand for which moreover is artificially stimulated, manipulated, encouraged and even created out of thin air by authoritarian methods.

The recent solvency, and even more the future spending power, of the proletariat has made it a vital sector in any modern economy. It is expected to soak up a growing output of goods and services, and therefore it is eagerly solicited, flattered, taken into consideration. In addition to its role as producer it has acquired a further dimension -- that of consumer. Henceforth nothing is withheld from it and it may (must, rather) consume everything that is consumable, and notably culture which, in an adapted and simplified form, the mass media now dole out in massive helpings.

In short, two kinds of factor have been at work in the integration of the proletariat into commodity civilization: its own worldly struggles on the one hand, and the evolution of the economic system on the other. This process is virtually complete in most developed countries (at least for native workers; immigrant labour, on the contrary, is obliged to fight the battle for integration all over again). Now that he enjoys theoretically unlimited access to commodities, the workers is in a position to reject and negate them.


The task of the current radical theory is to express precisely this negation. It represents a break with all sectorial revolts and half- hearted doctrines. It is born from first-hand experience of social conflicts, but a number of its elements can be traced back to the tradition of anti-authoritarian socialism. This tradition was entirely stamped out by Stalinism, although even in the nineteenth century it was tending to be overshadowed by Marxism's monopoly of oppositional thought. Marxism extracted from the other contemporary socialist systems those analyses which served its own ends.

On completing this ideological grafting operation, Marx pronounced the death of the donor as if the graft had utterly drained the donor of substance.

Nevertheless, the alternative to authoritarian ideology is as old as this ideology itself. It emerged as an antidote to all half-way formulae and, from the outset, identified itself with the cause of the utopia of liberation. The great socialist movement born in the first half of the nineteenth century in France impregnated neighbouring and even distant countries with its rationality. Radical thought took root before State socialism and the various authoritarian conceptions of social organization came to be identified with the theory of the proletariat. It emerged at different periods in most European countries and in the United States, and remained a vital force up to the end of the last century, when it was smothered by Marxist-inspired social democracy. All the same, each revolt, each emancipation movement provides it with an occasion to remind us once more of its existence. It played a part in the great autonomous mass movements in Russia (1905-7), Germany (1918-19), England (1918-26), Italy (1920), Spain (1936-7),Hungary (1919, 1956) and France (1936, 1968). Today it seems highly unlikely that radical thought will ever vanish entirely from view. It is solidly established in the so-called affluent societies and is now beginning to pose a challenge in the consciousness of the masses to all those ideologies based on command and obedience. (6)

In short, it presents an alternative, playing out its role before history.


1. Karl Marx, Capital, Book 1, pt 8 (Moscow, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1954), p. 763.

2. The bulk of the proletariat engaged came from the Faubourg St. Antoine, then outside Paris proper.

3. This phrase is typical: 'We consider the tendency of modern industry to associate children and young people of both sexes in the great movement of social production as a progress and a legitimate tendency, although the manner in which this tendency is manifested under the yoke of capital is an abomination. In a rational society, any child over the age of nine should be a productive worker.' K. Marx, Revolutions du premier congress de 1'A.1. T., (1866), in J. Freymond (ed.), La premiƩre internationale (Geneva, 1962), vol. 1, p. 31, and K. Marx, F. Engels, Werke (Berlin, 1957), vol. 16, p. 193.

4. Which is not to say that Marxism had no liberating quality to it by comparison with that other power ideology, liberalism. Historically. however, it served to effect a revolution for power, and not for its destruction. Once it became operative, moreover, Marxism no longer existed in its pure state: it had become Kautskyism, Austro-Marxism, Guesdism, Leninism.... After 1917 we may speak of Marxism-Leninism as the most fully developed form of the bureaucratic class's ideology.

5. Which is not to say he had not consumed before this. But he had absorbed no more than a minimum of the Gross National Product, just enough for his physical reproduction; his global demand was therefore too negligible to encourage any noteworthy investment.

6. Thus, reversing Lenin's formula (in What is to be Done?), we may say that the consciousness of the proletariat is revolutionary the moment it ceases to come from the exterior.