Aufheben - Greatest Hits

Online book collecting together the best of Aufheben magazine.

Originally conceived as a physical book published jointly by Aufheben and libcom, Aufheben 'Greatest Hits' represents some of the best articles published thus far in the magazine over its (at time of writing) nearly 20 year run. The articles have been collected into three thematic areas - Autonomia, Inside Movements and Decadence, and come with introductions which place the articles within the context of the time they were written. Some of the introductions are fairly critical, representing how the views of the Aufheben collective have developed over time.

While this collection is far from the 'final word' on Aufheben, we feel it presents an easier "jumping in" point for readers new to the magazine, than the potentially intimidating number and range of articles found in the original issues.

Autonomia - Critical articles on the Autonomist tradition, including critiques of Harry Cleaver and Antonio Negri.
Inside Movements - A series of articles theorising the struggles which Aufheben collective members had been closely involved in, including the struggle against the Criminal Justice Bill and the anti-roads movement.
Decadence - A three part article tackling the problems inherent in the Marxist concept of 'decadence of capitalism'.

Aufheben - Autonomia

Aufheben articles on Autonomia.

Articles in this series -

From Operaismo to Autonomist Marxism
The arcane of reproductive production
Keep on Smiling - questions on immaterial labour

Whether we have liked it or not, Aufheben has often been pigeon-holed as an Autonomist Marxist magazine. It is certainly true that Autonomism had been a defining influence and inspiration for those of us who launched Aufheben in 1992. It was not so much the lucidity of the prose, the rigour of the logic or even the empirical robustness of the arguments contained in the autonomist writings which had been translated into English over the previous decade or so that impressed us. There were other more important reasons why we had been inspired by Autonomism.

First of all, autonomist theory could claim to have arisen from the practice of an actual mass movement. From the accounts we had read, it was apparent that the waves of class struggle that had swept across the world during the 1960s and 70s had occurred on a significantly greater scale and intensity in Italy (the home of Autonomism) than those that had occurred elsewhere. But more significantly, the struggles in Italy - with perhaps the brief exception of Paris for a few weeks in 1968 - could be seen to have gone far further than anywhere else. In Italy, the struggles of the 70s had given rise to a political and social movement that could be seen to have been breaking free from the fetters imposed by the organisational forms, practice and ideas of the old workers movement and the left. By reflecting this movement in theory it could be argued that the Italian Autonomism had given one of the most advanced theoretical expressions of the waves of struggles of the 1960s and 1970s.

Secondly, autonomist theory provided us with a starting point from which to understand non-traditional forms of social and political struggle in class terms. In our editorial to the first issue of Aufheben we pointed out that the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s had given rise to a revival of many of the theoretical currents of the classical workers movement which had previously been submerged by decades of Stalinism, such as Trotskyism, class struggle anarchism and council communism. These currents certainly put forward radical class analyses. However, we argued that to a large extent these currents had merely ‘regurgitated as ideology the theories they were [re]discovering’.1 To this extent they had failed, as we rather obscurely put it, to ‘actually develop a theory adequate to modern conditions’.2 Instead, we asserted that it had been the autonomists, along with the Situationists, that had gone furthest in recognizing that these ‘modern conditions’ - which had been established after the defeat of the revolutionary workers movements of the 1920s and 30s - had radically altered the nature of the proletariat.

It was claimed that the emergence of this new proletariat was giving rise to new needs, new demands and new forms of struggle. These new needs, demands and struggles could be discerned both in the growth of rank and file workers militancy, and in the ‘refusal of work’ - evident in individual acts of absenteeism and sabotage and the more general disaffection with labour amongst the working class. But it could also be claimed to be evident outside the workplace both with the spread of counter-culture - with its anti-work, hedonistic and libertarian ethos – as well as in the new social movements, which had largely grown out of this counter-culture, such as the women’s, student, peace and the ecology movements.

But such claims did not appear as particularly obvious, in Britain at least. After all, the counter-culture remained largely confined to life-style politics and various other forms of cultural rebellion. While counter-culture may claim to have created ‘new proletarian needs’, it had also facilitated their commodification. At the same time the new social movements rarely went beyond the limits of an ultimately reformist radical liberalism. What is more, both the counter-culture and the disparate new social movements had (for the most part) remained quite separate to militant workplace struggles of the time – and even at times radically opposed.

By developing and generalising the theories of workers self-creativity, class composition and proletarian subjectivity - as early Operaismo currents of Autonomism in relation to the workplace struggles of the Fiat car workers had - Toni Negri and other Autonomia theorists provided a way of understanding the diverse forms of struggles and social phenomena, which had emerged outside the workplace, as manifestations of the development of underlying class antagonisms driven by the proletariat itself. What is more, such notions as the ‘social factory’ and the emergence of the ‘social worker’ as the ‘new revolutionary subject’, which had been developed by the Italian Autonomia, seemed to have found their confirmation in the ‘Movement of ‘77’, and had appeared as aspects of a single mass political and social movement that had overtly challenged the Italian state.

Thirdly - and no less importantly - autonomist theory (particularly that of Negri and Autonomia) appealed to us because of its unabashed revolutionary rhetoric. In contrast to the scientific objectivism and realism of traditional Marxism, the autonomist theorists seemed to place themselves at the barricades - bolstering the ‘optimism of the will’ with an ‘optimism of the intellect’ in order to urge the movement forward. For them, what seemed most important was not to produce a ‘boring’ analysis of the ‘empirical’ reality of the current situation, but to anticipate and proclaim its revolutionary possibilities.

By the early 1990s the waves of struggles that had swept Italy and elsewhere in decade or so before had receded, but they were very far from being ancient history. With the fall of Thatcher, the return of economic crisis with the recession of the early 1990s and the uncertainties created by the end of the cold war, it was still possible to believe that the tide had not altogether turned. In such circumstances Autonomism still remained fresh and relevant. Even if Toni Negri, along with many others of the Italian Autonomia, had ‘sold out’ and joined the ranks of the post-modernists, the Autonomist theory was still being developed, particularly by the largely American Autonomist Marxist current mostly ably represented by Harry Clever and those surrounding the Midnight Notes collective.

However, even then the problems of Autonomist theory were becoming evident to us. Their revolutionary rhetoric, which so impressed us, was almost invariably based on heroic extrapolations of abstract social phenomena and trends that were then asserted as being all but realised.3 But as the struggles of the 1970s receded, and the anticipations of autonomist theory were disappointed, the gap between such assertions and actual reality became evermore wider. In the case of Negri the ‘difficulty’ and obscurantism of much his writing – which it must be admitted we often all too easily mistook for profundity –served to cover up this gap. For our more plain speaking American friends, however, this was not the case.

In Aufheben#3 we presented a review of Midnight Oil, an anthology of works by American Autonomist collectives Zerowork and Midnight Notes that had been published shortly after the Gulf War, that we republish in this volume. What immediately struck us about Midnight Oil was its crass attempt to explain the complex geo-politics of the Gulf War simply in terms of an unmediated and barely disguised class confrontation between ‘capital’ and the ‘oil proletariat’. The assertion that the war between the US and Iraq was really little more than a ruse by capital to defeat the ‘oil proletariat’, along with the argument that ‘capital’ had been able to arbitrarily raise or lower oil prices in order to impose its strategy on the working class, was for us far from convincing. Indeed, it exposed serious problems of Autonomist Marxist’s central notion of the ‘two strategies’; in which the development of capitalism could be simply explained in terms of an unmediated struggle between capital and the working class as if they were two already constituted, conscious and antagonistic subjects.

For us capital was essentially the self-expansion of alienated labour that necessary took the objectified social form of value. Furthermore, capital, like the proletariat, was not an already constituted totality but a process of totalisation that resulted from the conflicting interests of individual capitals. As such it was not the case, as George Caffentzis sought to claim in his reply to our review of Midnight Oil, that the issue was merely a matter of emphasis in that the Midnight Notes collective sought to emphasise the ‘subjective’ while Aufheben sought to bring back the ‘objective’. As we made clear in our response to his reply,4 by attempting to escape the law of value Midnight Notes had abandoned any hope of understanding the complex mediations between capital and labour, subject and object and the individual and totality necessary to develop an adequate understanding of the concrete development and history of capitalism.

The review of Midnight Notes, and the subsequent engagement with Caffentzis, laid the basis of our critique and break with Autonomism that has been developed more recently. However, at the time we did not feel the need to go much further. After all interest in the Italian Autonomia, Negri or even American Autonomous Marxism remained largely confined to a small and diminishing circle of anarchists and ultra-leftists and seemed to have little more to say. However, the emergence of the anti-globalisation movement in the late 1990s brought a dramatic revival in interest in Autonomism in the English speaking world which was greatly boosted by the publication of Empire by Negri and Hardt in 2000.

For us it was clear that the attempt by Negri and Hardt to foist what were barely disguised post-modernist ideas on the anti-globalisation movement was merely an attempt to refurbish their threadbare appearance as radical intellectuals by attempting to make a tenuous connection with a real political movement. Their rejection of class and their uncritical and complacent celebration of the diversity of the movement only confirmed for that for all their apparent radicalism they were little more than radical liberal academics. Nevertheless, Empire and subsequent the writings of Negri and Hardt, along with Autonomism more generally, did have a significant resonance in the anti-globalisation movement. It must be admitted that we were at first perhaps a little tardy and haphazard in our responding to this.

In Aufheben #11 we took the opportunity of the publication of a new edition of Harry Cleaver’s Reading Capital Politically and the publication of Steve Wright’s Storming Heaven to carry a joint review comparing these two accounts of Autonomism. This review proved to something of a missed opportunity in re-evaluating Autonomism. Due to its haphazard conception, the review ended up with a rather confused brief.5 Firstly, it was meant to promote that Steve Wright’s more historically based account and definition of Autonomism as having superseded that of Harry Cleaver. Secondly, it was meant to criticise the political conclusion usually drawn by autonomists in general, particularly the well worn gripe of ultra-leftists that autonomists were ‘soft’ on left nationalists. Thirdly, the review was to criticise Cleaver in particular, both for his reading of Marx and his development of autonomous theory. As a result the review was unfocused. This allowed Cleaver to make a rather patronising and schoolmasterly reply in which he annotated a copy of our review with his ‘corrections’.

This prompted us to make a more focused and sustained critique of autonomist theory that recognised and carefully distinguished its distinct strands that had grown up since the 1970s. Three of the more substantial articles and reviews of this critique are re-published in this volume: ‘The arcane of productive reproduction’, ‘Carry on smiling’ and ‘Value struggles or class struggle?’.

We began, perhaps more by accident than by design with a review in Aufheben #13 (2005) of Leopoldina Fortunati’s ‘The arcane of reproduction’, in which we analysed the Autonomist understanding of value production and its role in capitalism. In particular, we tackled the Autonomist rejection of the distinction between workers as ‘productive’ and ‘unproductive’ of value, and their view of capitalism as a ‘social factory’ in which everybody contributes to the overall process of value production.

Fortunati’s book cannot be considered a principal Autonomist work; it was a short, semi-obscure pamphlet. Yet it offered us the occasion to consider why it was so crucial for Autonomia to argue that everybody in the ‘social factory’ was ‘productive’. The answer to this question allowed us to put pieces of the Autonomist puzzle together: with the ‘law of command’ replacing the ‘law of value’, value becomes the immediate expression of subjective antagonism. This creates the Autonomists’ obsession with value: since production of value is taken as an immediate measure of antagonism, non-productive workers, students, housewives, etc. must produce value – or their struggle can’t be accounted by their theory. Thus Autonomia’s stress on value was not necessitated by the praxis of struggle, but by a problematic theory: either the unproductive was declared ‘productive’ (either by modifying the concept of value or just by butchering logic), or the Autonomist theory had problems in explaining reality.

Also, the stress on productivity did not impress us very much. Since most of us in the Aufheben editorial board were on the dole, we didn’t feel that our alleged production of value was essential to explain our antagonism with capital. Rather, with their obsession with value, Autonomia appeared to uncritically reproduce the Leninist worship of productivity, although in an inverted form.6 Like the old Leninist, the young Autonomist assumes that the subject of struggle must be productive – only, the ‘factory’ includes the street, the classroom and the bedroom.

Fortunati took this doctrine to unexplored heights, as she laughably attempted to derive a formula for the value produced by housework. But in our review article we did not simply tease her embarrassing pseudo-mathematics – we also explored the role of value in all the Autonomist theory, and considered Cleaver, Negri and De Angelis, their common positions as well as their differences.7

We also realised that the claim that all society is a ‘factory’ undermined the understanding of an important distinction, that between the spheres of production and circulation in capitalism. If for Autonomia a subjective experience of ‘capitalist command’ only counts, capital can be seen as a personalised enemy of each individual subjectivity. Command, and so antagonism, can be experienced by the poorest migrant, but also by the stressed NHS manager, by the university professor, or by the shop keeper. They are all, equally, ‘commanded’ by capital either in the workplace or in the sphere of circulation.

While some Autonomists like Cleaver and De Angelis continued using a Marxist language although stretching its original meanings, others, perhaps more coherently, took these positions to their logical consequences. Since the 80s Negri and other Autonomist theorists were already moving along a trajectory that would lead them to repudiate the ‘working class’. Negri enthusiastically adhered to a postmodernist view of society as made by a ‘swarm’ of ‘free’ individuals, and which disposes of the need for a class analysis. With Empire and Multitude, Negri criticised the category of ‘working class’ and adopted the postmodernist concept of ‘multitude’, elaborated by Autonomist Paolo Virno.8

Having missed the boat somewhat in reviewing Empire in 2000 in Aufheben # 14, we decided to review Negri’s and Hardt’s second book, Multitude. In this review article we critiqued Negri’s optimistic view that capital has created its own grave-digger in its new process of production – the ‘immaterial production’. We showed that this view was rooted in Negri’s inability to consider the tragedy of production in capitalism – i.e. that (either material or immaterial) production in a wage-work relation unavoidably creates alienation. We also noticed that Negri’s new production, like his old one, was unable to go beyond Leninism. Negri’s celebration of immaterial production simply inverted the old Leninist productivism, while uncritically accept its basic assumptions.

The reviews of Massimo De Angelis’s ‘The Beginning of History’ and Paolo Virno’s ‘Multitude’ in Aufheben #16 concluded a long period of systematic analysis of Autonomia. In ‘The beginning of history’ De Angelis adopted a recent and popular reading of the class struggle as a struggle to defend ‘commons’ against capital’s ‘enclosure’; and built up a grand theory around these concepts. While we praised De Angelis’s strong critique of Negri’s immaterial labour, we were also critical of De Angelis’s interest in ‘commons’ and ‘enclosures’. We saw these concepts as the logical conclusion of a trajectory which has started from the idea that the class struggle in capitalism could be immediately see as a confrontation of autonomous subjects, capital versus the class. While in the 70s such a subjectivist reading made sense, the retreat of the class struggle left the Autonomist theorists bereft – the autonomous subject had vanished. In the review we showed how this problem led Negri to define immaterial production as the locus for an autonomous and antagonistic subjectivity. Rejecting Negri, De Angelis looked outside production for an unspoilt autonomous bubble of subjectivity, and found it in the ‘communities’ struggling to defend their ‘commons’.

While the concept of common and enclosure appear new and exciting, we thought that it was a form of fetishism. Any conscious and collective antagonism against capital cannot be defined ‘outside’ it. We showed that outside and inside, are both necessary aspects for a conscious development of antagonism and for a struggle of the class of the dispossessed against capital.

Although Autonomism was a defining influence and inspiration on those us who launched Aufheben seventeen years ago we would certainly not call ourselves autonomists now. Times have changed, and it has become apparent to us that many of the things that had inspired us about the various strands of Autonomism have also proved to be serious weaknesses. However, although we have increasingly distanced ourselves from Autonomia, on our part there is no regret for our ongoing interest in it, as a theory that stressed the importance of subjectivity, antagonism, the experience of class struggle and that opened up to struggles outside the workplace. By looking at it retroactively for this anthology, we can say that in moving away from Autonomia, Aufheben has precisely done what it promised in it first Editorial:

‘To recognise and seize the opportunity the changing situation offers we need to arm ourselves theoretically and practically. The theoretical side of this requires a preservation and superseding of the revolutionary theory that has preceded us’ (#1, p.1).

In our dealing with Autonomia we have undergone a process of Aufhebung that goes beyond given ideas but preserves their moment of truth. The urge for a theory of subjectivity stimulated in us a process of understanding, which, unlike Autonomia, seeks to preserve a class view. We have never abandoned the importance to start from a materialistic (not moralistic or purely subjectivist) understanding of reality. This effort has not only led us to distance ourselves from Autonomia, but also from theories that appeared to be at its polar opposite, for example the Marxist Hegelianism of Postone and his likes, which collapse the subjective into the objective.9

It is worth stressing that this Aufhebung was not the result of pure theoretical thinking. Our practical experience of struggle in our last 15 years was central in this development: it faced us with questions about the relation between theory and reality, subject and object, ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, it forced us to adopt a class view. And so it forced us to continually reassess our fascinations and ideas critically.10

Articles in this series -

From Operaismo to Autonomist Marxism
The arcane of reproductive production
Keep on Smiling - questions on immaterial labour

  • 1. Aufheben #1, (Summer 1992), p1.
  • 2. Aufheben #1, (Summer 1992), p1.
  • 3. Thus for example, the introduction of robotics into the FIAT car plants, in response to the car workers struggles of the early 1970s, was taken as evidence that capitalist production in its entirety was all but fully automated. Hence, Marx’s prediction in the Grundrisse (p. 705) that labour in the direct form would cease to be well great spring of wealth’ and that as such labour-time ceases and must cease to be its measure’, was now proclaimed as being almost fully realised. The law of value was therefore dead. Labour was now merely a means of command and control.

    Similarly, the growth in the autonomists movements, and the ‘new proletarian needs’ it expressed, was extrapolated to the point where it was implicitly assumed that it was about to encompass the entire proletariat. Of course, the reality is that even in Italy at its height, the autonomist movement never came close to encompassing the entire proletariat. The vast majority of the Italian working class during the 1970s had little or no direct involvement in the autonomist movements.

  • 4. The Escape from the ‘Law of Value’?, Aufheben #5 (1996).
  • 5. Originally the Harry Cleaver’s Reading Capital Politically was to have been part of a joint review with Moshie Postone’s Time Labour and Social Domination. The Postone half of the review failed to materialise, so the Cleaver half had to be rewritten to be counter posed to Steve Wright’s Storming Heaven. Unfortunately the Steve Wright half of the review ended up not amounting to much either.
  • 6. This worship substantiates Negri’s rather dubious and rather apologetic conception of ‘self-valorisation’.
  • 7. In this anthology, the parts related to Fortunati’s mathematics have been abridged.
  • 8. ‘The language of retreat: Paolo Virno’s A Grammar of the multitude’, Aufheben #16 (2008).
  • 9. Review of Moishe Postone’s Time Labour and Social Domination, Aufheben #15 (2007).
  • 10. ‘Theoretical criticism and practical overflow fifteen years on'’, Aufheben #15 (2007).

Aufheben - Decadence

Introduction to ‘the theory of decline or the decline of theory’

Articles in this series -

The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory - Part 1
The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory - Part 2
The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory - Part 3

‘The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory’ is perhaps one of the more well known and popular of Aufheben’s early articles that are now long out of print. But what was also particularly significant for us, when deciding what to include in the this volume, was that ‘The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory’ was our first attempt, in an extended ‘theoretical’ article, to develop many of the positions, which we had only been able to sketch out in the editorial of the first Aufheben, that define where we were coming from.

Of course since this article was written Aufheben has moved on. Indeed, it must be said that even by the time the third instalment had been eventually written and published it had already become clear to us that, despite its merits, that there were serious shortcomings in ‘The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory’. Rereading this article more than a decade later these shortcomings are all the more glaring. It therefore perhaps behoves us in an introduction such as this to highlight the more salient problems that we now find with this text, and give something of an explanation as to how they arose. But before looking at some of shortcomings of the text itself we shall begin with recalling the political context within which it came to be written.

In our early days we saw ourselves as part of what we then saw as a broadly defined ‘ultra-left’ milieu. At the time, the Anti-Poll Tax movement had produced something of a revival of the ‘ultra-left’ in Britain, which had grown up since the 1960s but which had gone into steep decline following the defeat of the miners strike in 1985. After all, the Anti-Poll Tax movement had seemed to open up the possibility of new forms of ‘unmediated’ class struggle. At the same time, the machinations of the ‘left’, which culminated with Militants threat on TV to ‘name names’ of the Anti-Poll Tax rioters to the police, seemed to both confirm all the old ‘ultra-left’ criticisms of the ‘left-wing of capital’ and re-affirmed the need for a trenchant anti-leftist stance. Despite the reflux that occurred in the aftermath of the Anti-Poll Tax movement, and the dismal failure of the ‘actually existing ultra left’ to get its act together during the Gulf War in 19911, the continued economic crises, the fall of the USSR and the consequent crisis of the left, all seemed provide the opportunity for the development of a revolutionary politics in the longer term.2

As a consequence, what we saw as one of our primary tasks at this time was to facilitate the theoretical and political regroupment of the ‘ultra-left’ milieu. To this end, shortly after Aufheben #1 came out in the Autumn of 1992, we accepted the invitation offered by Wildcat (UK) to hold a public meeting in London to present the arguments that we had put forward in the article ‘EMUs in the Class War’.3 It may have been hoped, if perhaps rather naively, that we may be able to avoid sterile debate around abstract or historical issues, which would have inevitably raised well worn ideological divisions within the milieu, by instead promoting discussion around more current and concrete political and economic concerns surrounding the attempts of the European bourgeoisie to create the European Monetary Union, and the relation this had to the current state of class struggle in both Britain and Europe.

It can’t be said that the meeting was particularly well attended. However, no doubt in order to repel what they saw as the latest ‘modernist grouplet’ that had emerged out of the anarchist ‘swamp’, and which might threaten to undermine their hard-won ‘proletarian’ theoretical positions, the International Communist Current (ICC) came out in force. The concerted response of the massed ranks of the ICC, which positioned themselves along the front row, to the arguments of ‘EMUs in the Class War’ not only served to closed down any serious debate at the meeting, but was perhaps all too predictable.

We were told, in no uncertain terms, that capitalism had become decadent in 1914. Not only this, after nearly eighty years of being decadent, capitalism had become so rotten that it had now entered the final phase of decadence – the ‘phase of decomposition’. It was therefore quite inconceivable that the bourgeoisie would be able go beyond the organisational heights of the nation state, which had been achieved during the ascendant era of capitalism in nineteenth century. In the phase of decomposition there could be no economic or political re-composition of the bourgeoisie, only decomposition. Such decomposition, they said, was readily being confirmed by the then current break up of Yugoslavia. Hence, the attempt to create a European Monetary Union was simply doomed to failure. There was therefore little point in discussing such matters any further than that.

It must be said that at this time the ICC still retained an inordinate influence over us. Although we certainly disagreed with much of what they said, and had certainly become wary of their dogmatic political practice, we still saw the ICC as providing a fixed reference point with which to navigate by, and admired their unbending defence of ‘revolutionary principles’ against the siren voices of ‘leftism’ and ‘reformism’. However, their dogmatic ‘intervention’ in the meeting prompted us to begin reassessing and clarifying our position regarding the ICC and, in particular, their defining doctrine – their theory of decadence.

Yet, as we were to point out in ‘The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory’, the theory of decadence is far from being the sole preserve of the ICC or even, more generally, left-communism. Indeed, a theory of decadence or decline had become the hall-mark of nearly all the various strands of revolutionary Marxism which claimed to defend the Marxist orthodoxy of the Second and Third internationals in the twentieth century against revisionism and reformism. As such, a confrontation with decadence theory seemed to offer an easy way into to a critique of ‘orthodox Marxism’ as whole.4

But why stop there? On the basis of this ‘critique’ it would be possible, or so it seemed, to assess the merits and limits of all those heterodox currents; such as the Socialisme ou Barbarie, the Situationists and the various strands of Autonomia and Autonomist Marxism, that had arisen in opposition to orthodox Marxism in recent decades, and which had been so inspirational for us. The critique of the theory of decadence, therefore, seemed to provide the means of ‘coming to terms’ with all the strands of revolutionary Marxism, which had influenced us in one way or another, in one fowl swoop!

As a result, what had originally been envisaged as fitting comfortably within the confines of an extended Aufheben article threatened to take on the dimensions of a sizable book. This tension between what the article was originally intended to be, and what it ‘could possibly become’, created considerable stresses and strains, both within the argument of the article itself, and within the Aufheben collective. What should have taken only a few months to research and write turned in to what at the time seemed a never ending saga, in which each episode was more excruciating to produce than the one before it.5 Finally, after more than three years, it became necessary to put the article out of its misery and bring the entire exercise to an abrupt halt.6

So how did the stresses and strains involved in the production of the article show up in the actual text of ‘The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory’? We do not propose an exhaustive criticism of the article here. Instead we shall concentrate on a couple of the more salient fissures that were to arise in the text.

The article certainly provides a well researched critical account of the various strands of revolutionary Marxism that emerged in the twentieth century. In doing so it makes what we would still see as important and interesting points. However, once the rather abrupt and unsatisfactory ‘non-conclusion’ is reached it becomes readily apparent that there are serious problems with the overall argument of ‘The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory’.

In order to bring the article to a conclusion it had been necessary to answer what, after all, had been ostensibly the basic question – are the theories of decadence true? Has capitalism entered the era of its decline? But no sooner than we dutifully pose this question then it becomes evident that, after having expended tens of thousands of words, we had not gone very far towards answering it. Having made the rather lame excuse that to answer this question meant addressing Marxism in its entirety, all we were then able to do was to make various points that may have contributed towards formulating such an answer if we had eventually managed to get round to answering it. While these points may have been pertinent to answering the question of whether capitalism is in decline, none of them had been developed very far in the main body of the text.

Once the conclusion is read, it is not hard to realise that the argument of the article had somehow gone off at a tangent at some point and had become hopelessly lost. But to see where we became lost, and the further implications this has for the overall coherence of the article, it is necessary to go back to the very beginning.

In the Introduction it was correctly pointed out that any consideration of the theory of decadence raises a number of other related issues. Some of the issues that were mentioned as examples were either tangential or of a rather technical nature, and, as such, could have been dealt with as and when necessary during the course of the article. However, there were other issues mentioned that were far more fundamental and required discussion at the very outset of the article, or at least needed to be thought through before article was begun.

Unfortunately this was not done. Rather than taking care to prepare the foundations of the arguments to be developed in the article, we hared off into an ill considered critical review of the origins and development of twentieth century Marxism, which had an increasingly tenuous connection with the issue of the theory of decadence. The result of this failure to prepare proper foundations for the article was not only that the article eventually lost its way but that the overall coherence of the article became fatally flawed.

As an illustrative examples of the problems with the article, we shall briefly consider the consequences of the failure to think through the two fundamental issues that were at least mentioned in the introduction – that is ‘the periodising of capitalism’ and the ontological question of the relation of subject and object.

As anyone who has seriously studied history knows, if we are to apprehend the complex movement of real concrete history it is necessary to employ some form of periodisation. Furthermore, if history is not to be seen as merely a chronology of more or less random events, it is necessary to employ such concepts as tendencies, process and development, and in doing so draw upon such biological metaphors such as birth, growth and decline.

Yet, as anyone who has seriously studied history also knows, periodisation, particularly with regard to grand periodisations of an entire social system, is inherently fraught with problems and dangers. Periodisation is necessarily a process of abstraction, in which what are considered the essential tendencies that unify periods and distinguish them from each other are abstracted from complex and contradictory concrete reality. As a result, on closer inspection, any periodisation is liable to come in contradiction both with discontinuities within the designated periods, and continuities that exist across designated periods. The devil, it might be said, is in the detail. Any theory of periodisation must therefore proceed, through both conceptual and empirical research, to account for such contradictory tendencies and phenomena if it is to reproduce the concrete in thought.

But all this requires effort. It is far easier to imbue the designations of periods, which are often quite abstract or even nominal, with a spurious explanatory power, which then obviates the need for any further theoretical development. As a result, theory remains within the comfort zone of abstract generalities – which purport to explain everything in general, but in fact explain nothing in particular. But a theory that remains abstract inevitably declines in to dogma. The ICC’s theory of decadence perhaps being a prime example.

Discussion of such general problems of periodisation, together with a systematic appraisal of other attempts to provide periodisation of the capitalist mode of production in particular, would have provided the foundation for a thorough empirical and conceptual based critique of the theories of capitalist decline.7 It would also have provided the basis for showing how such periodisations can inhibit the development of theory. At least then we could have justified ‘predicate-subject’ reversal of the title.8

In fact, we did not pursue a thorough ‘critique’ of decadence theory very far.9 After all what was the point of taking all the time and trouble hacking off one branch, when, with a well aimed sweep of the axe, the entire tree of ‘orthodox Marxism’, decadent branch and all, could be felled at its ontological roots. Unfortunately, as we shall see, the axe was not that well aimed and we had not taken enough time to sharpen the blade.

As with the issue of periodisation, the ‘ontological’ issues that were to become fundamental to the entire article were neither discussed in the Introduction nor even properly worked out before hand. Who or what was the subject? What was object? And how they were related? These were questions that were simply left to be worked out as we went along.10 This failure to at least think through such ‘ontological’ issues at the very outset was to lead to both serious ambiguities and fatal lapses that were to undermine the coherence of overall argument of the article and open us up to severe but justifiable criticism.

Let us now consider two of the most glaring manifestations of this failure to adequately resolve the ‘ontological’ issues at the outset. We shall begin with one of the more obvious errors that we were to make in our discussion of the origins of orthodox Marxism.

‘An obectivist Marxism’?
Of course, with the rise of Hegelian Marxism it has become commonplace to argue that Marx’s Capital, as its subtitle suggests, was first and foremost an immanent critique of political economy. Through an immanent critique of the reified categories that had been produced and systemised by classical political economy, Marx had sought to show how capital, as the self-expansion of alienated labour, tended to reduce all human agency to its own movement. As a result, capital could be seen to bring about an ‘ontological inversion’, in which capital itself becomes the subject-object of the current historical epoch.

However, in making an immanent critique of political economy Marx had to necessarily develop the reified categories of political economy. In order to show how capital tends to subsume human agency to its own objective laws of motion, it was necessary to show what these objective laws of motion were and how they operated. As such, by logical necessity, class struggle and human subjectivity were, for the most part, provisionally attenuated and closed off within the pages of Capital. As a consequence, if Marx’s Capital is read as a complete and closed text then it may well lend itself to what we may term an ‘objectivist’ or ‘economistic’ reading.

In the prevailing intellectual climate of the late nineteenth century, during which the natural sciences had risen in prestige at the expense of speculative philosophy, it had been very easy for the first generation of Marxists to overlook the form of Capital as a critique of political economy. Instead Capital was usually read in terms of its immediate content as simply a closed and self-sufficient scientific treatise on political economy. It could therefore be said that, just as the natural scientists had discovered the objective laws that governed nature; so Marx could be seen in Capital to have lain bare the essential objective economic laws that ultimately governed capitalist society.

Now it is true that such an ‘objectivist’ reading of Capital could easily lead to a crude economic determinism and, even at times, to a political fatalism. Certainly many who were acquainted with Marx’s Capital in the late nineteenth century drew such conclusions. However, the leading theorists of both the Second and Third Internationals, on the basis of a similar ‘objectivist’ and ‘closed’ readings of Capital, opposed what they saw as the economic determinist vulgarisation of Marxism.

The orthodox theorists could readily accept that Marx’s Capital was a scientific treatise that revealed the operation of the objective laws that ultimately governed capitalist society. However, they could argue that although a natural scientist had to take a contemplative position so as to act as an objective observer in order to understand the natural laws that governed the natural world, once these natural laws were known they could then be harnessed for human purposes. Likewise, once the economic laws of capitalist society were known then they too could be harnessed so as to bring about the socialist transformation of society. Hence, the positive economic science of Marx’s Capital had to be supplemented by, what at an early age would have been termed, the art and science of politics.

Now this answer to the economic determinism of vulgar Marxism betrayed and reinforced an underlying ‘ontological dualism’ within the orthodox Marxism of the time. As has often been pointed, this dualism - which radically separates from the outset the subject from object – can be seen to be the source of many of the theoretical and political problems that were to emerge within Marxist orthodoxy.11

In short then, if we had thought things through we could have said that an ‘objectivist’ and closed reading of Capital led, at least in part, to the problems of ‘ontological dualism’ within orthodox Marxism, which in return led to a dichotomy between political and economic theory. Instead, in our haste to use the stalking horse of the critique of the theory of decline as means to make a critique of ‘orthodox Marxism’ as a whole, our argument becomes confused and ambiguous with dire consequences.

Now it might be reasonably argued that the theories of capitalist decline were rooted in ‘objectivist’ readings of Capital that were inherited from the Second International. But this does not mean that ‘orthodox Marxism’ as whole can simply be reduced to being an ‘objectivist Marxism’. However much Marxists of the time may have thought that capitalism was doomed to breakdown due its own internal and objective laws, few thought that this would be a sufficient condition for the achievement of socialism. Socialism could only be brought about through the conscious will, determination and action of party militants, and ultimately the working class. Even the most committed economic determinist would see the working out of capital’s objective laws ultimately posing a choice, even if it might be a rather apocalyptic choice, between war or revolution; socialism or barbarism?

Of course, we could not ignore this subjective moment in ‘orthodox Marxism’. Indeed, most of the writings of Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg, for example, would have been largely incomprehensible if they were understood to be ‘pure objectivists’, or even simply economic determinists. Not only this, we were at the time certainly familiar with the criticisms of orthodoxy Marxism for being based on an ‘ontological dualism’. After all we had read our Korsch and Lukacs. In fact our account of ‘orthodox Marxism’ we readily drew on such criticisms of dualism.

Yet our hasty conflation of the critique of decadence with the critique of orthodox Marxism meant that at the crucial points where we had to press home our criticisms our argument faltered. If orthodox Marxism is ‘objectivist’ how do we account for this subjectivist moment? Rather than attempting to account for this, we end up dismissing the subjective moment as being somehow non-essential. The theories of both the Second and Third Internationals were reduced to their common economic determinism, which was then juxtaposed to their differing essentially non-theoretical political practice.

But the consequence of this is that when we press home our criticism against orthodox Marxism we lapsed into a crude anarchism – the likes of Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg are denounced as having a mere ‘contemplative’, ‘deterministic’ and even ‘fatalistic’ theory. This lapse was eagerly seized upon and duly ridiculed by the ICC in their response to ‘The Decline of Theory…’. Not only this but this lapse all also allowed them to construe our argument as simply counter-posing the pure self-determining subjectivism of abstract freedom against the objectivism of Marxism - permitting them to give us an elementary lesson in the dialectics of freedom and necessity to boot.

As they say:

According to Aufheben, the theory of capitalist decadence (i.e. Marxism) reduces “ … revolutionary political activity to a reaction to an inevitable movement.” It “involves an essentially contemplative stance before the objectivity of capitalism …”. Its consequence is that “socialism is seen not as the free creation of the proletariat but as the natural result of economic development”.
Those unfamiliar with Marxism could quite easily be bamboozled by these arguments, particularly as they tend to regurgitate today’s official media diet which links Marxism with exactly those unappealing qualities. Who but a social democratic or Stalinist monk would choose grim historic necessity over free creativity, or prefer contemplation to activity?

But the alternatives posed by Aufheben are completely false: freedom does not lie in any imaginary independence from necessity, but in the recognition of necessity and action based on this recognition. Freedom and necessity are not mutually exclusive, they are opposites which interpenetrate. How they do so again has to be discovered concretely. Likewise, the relationship between the theory and practice, subject and object, consciousness and being. In framing the problem this way we are only following in the footsteps of Marx and Engels … and Hegel, who, as Engels said was the first to understand the real relationship between freedom and necessity.12

A subjectivist Marxism?
The critical notion of ‘objective Marxism’, which became pivotal in course of the article, was clearly deficient if not problematic. After all if there was an ‘objectivist Marxism’ did not this imply there was some kind of ‘subjective Marxism’ – whatever that might be? And would not such a ‘subjective Marxism’ be just as much one-sided as an ‘objective Marxism’?

Nevertheless, ‘objective Marxism’ did seem to go some way in capturing what we saw as the more salient failings of traditional Marxism: its productivism, its passive and reactive conception of the working class, its conception of communism and so forth. What is more, although we were shy of using the term ‘subjective Marxism’, what appeared as the unifying feature of most of the heterodox currents that arose in opposition to the official Marxism of the USSR and the Stalinist Communist Parties was the centrality of individual and class subjectivity. Indeed, it had been the emphasis on needs and desires, the centrality of the conscious transformative self-activity of the working class, and the demands for the immediate abolition of wage-labour that had most inspired us about the writings of Socialisme ou Barbarie, the Situationists and the various strands of Autonomia and autonomist Marxism, which we came to consider in the second part of the article.

At the time, we still felt we owed considerable allegiance to such heterodox currents, particular the Autonomists which we saw as giving theoretical expression to the highest point in class struggle in recent times. Certainly our criticisms of these currents in Part Two were superficial and rather muted. We did not for instance examine the periodisations that underlay the theories of these currents; nor did we investigate those instances when such currents themselves flipped over into an economicistic, or even technological determinism.

But perhaps more significantly our criticisms were muted because we all too easily accepted the underlying ‘ontological’ assumptions of such ‘subjectivist’ currents. Thus, in particular, we uncritically accepted the assumption of an already constituted ‘radical proletarian subjectivity’ that somehow existed outside and against capital. It was therefore very easy to overlook how such subjectivist currents glossed over the very real problems of understanding how such ‘radical proletarian subjectivity’ was constituted out of the subjectivity of individual proletarians and through the complex mediations of the relation between capital and labour.

Instead, our overall criticism boiled down to a mere question of emphasis. In correcting the emphasis in ‘orthodox Marxism’ on ‘objectivism’, these currents, in the heat of the working class offensive of the 1960s and 1970s, had bent the stick a little too far the other way. It was now, in more sober times, necessary to ‘somehow’ correct this overcorrection. The failure to develop what this ‘somehow’ was meant that it was easy for us to be accused of having a position of mere mitigation, in which objectivism had to be brought back in for those times when there was a down turn in class struggle.13

However, it should be said that already by the time Part Two of ‘The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory’ was published we were already beginning to move on from the rather confused and ambiguous ‘ontological’ positions of this article, particularly through the development of our critical engagement with Autonomist Marxism.14

It must be admitted that ‘The Theory of Decline and the Decline of Theory’ is ultimately flawed both in its conception and in its execution. Certainly if we were to write it again we would go a very different way about doing it, and it would end up being a very different article. Nevertheless, if the number of comments, translations and reprints are anything to go by, ‘The Theory of Decline’ remains one of our more popular articles. Certainly, if it is read as a work-in-progress, rather than as a definitive statement, or ‘critique’, then ‘The Theory of Decline’ retains considerable merit.

If nothing else ‘The Theory of Decline’ provides a useful and well documented critical introduction to many of the more important strands of revolutionary Marxism. Furthermore, most of the criticisms and comments it presents we would still say are, in themselves, essentially correct.
‘The Theory of Decline and the Decline of Theory’ shows us working through our ideas and tentatively coming to terms with Marxist and other revolutionary currents that influenced us. As such it marks an important, and perhaps revealing, milestone in the development of Aufheben.

Articles in this series -

The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory - Part 1
The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory - Part 2
The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory - Part 3

  • 1. See Lessons from the ‘Struggle against the Gulf War’, in Aufheben no.1, Autumn 1992.
  • 2. With hindsight this revival appears as little more than a brief Indian summer. A subsequent attempt to regroup the ‘ultra left’ milieu around a regular joint bulletin also ran in the sands after Aufheben came under attack from different quarters for attempting, together with Radical Chains, to bridge the river of blood that separated the ultra left from the left since the time of Kronstadt! By the time of the anti-Criminal Justice Bill movement in 1995 it had become clear, at least to most of us in Aufheben, that, however intelligent and well read they were individually and however much their writings might have once inspired us years before, collectively and above all practically the ‘actually existing ultra left’ were worse than useless. It was then that we began to recognise that we had to go beyond the theory and practice of the ‘ultra left’.
  • 3. The practical connections that we had established with Wildcat (UK) during and immediately after the Anti-Poll Tax movement had encouraged us to be far more optimistic about the prospects for a re-groupment of the ‘ultra left’ than we might otherwise have been.
  • 4. Or as it was put in the conclusion to ‘The Theory of Decline or the Decline in Theory’, ‘coming to terms with theories of capitalist decline has involved coming to terms with Marxism’, Aufheben No.4, Summer 1995, p.34.
  • 5. In order to resolve the tension between what the article was originally intended to be and ‘what it could possibly become’ (but which might never be if it was not started), we made what proved to be the fateful decision to publish the article in parts as and when it was written, without a fully worked out plan or even a conclusion. This proved to be merely a temporary palliative.
  • 6. To do this a special commission was established to seize all notes in any way related to the article. All the materials seized, apart from a few sheets which were given a special exemption, were then ceremonially burnt (see photos in Aufheben No.4, Summer 1995, p.30). There was some protest at these draconian measures from certain quarters. It was argued by some that all that was needed was yet more time to ‘finish’ the article. But as we shall argue the article was fundamentally flawed from the beginning and needed to be torn down and re-written. After all, when you have dug yourself in to a hole the first thing to do is stop digging!
  • 7. For a discussion of the various attempts at periodising the capitalist mode of production, see ’The Global Accumulation of capital and the periodisation of the capitalist state form’, by Simon Clarke in Open Marxism, Volume I, edited by Bonefeld, Gunn and Psychopedis, Pluto Press, 1992.
  • 8. The unoriginality of this reversal – the theory of decline: the decline of theory – was to be seized upon by the ICC in their response to the article. Taking this as clear give away that we were merely yet another ‘modernist’ grouping who had read too much of the Situationists, they dismissively write:
    ‘The title of the article in question is ‘Decadence, the theory of decline or the decline of theory’. An attempt at dialectical Hegelian humour, but hardly original. The GCI (Groupe Communiste Internationaliste) launched its attack on the theory some years ago, and their article was called ‘The theory of decadence or the decadence of theory’. More recently, Internationalist Perspective decided to rubbish the ICC’s notion that we have entered into the final phase of decadence, the phase of decomposition. This time the article was wittily entitled the ‘The theory of decomposition or the decomposition of theory’. A case of great minds thinking alike?’ in ‘Polemic with Aufheben: An Attack on Decadence is an attack on Marxism’, World Revolution no 168, October 1993. Available at:
  • 9. ‘Black Wednesday’ in October 1992, which saw the pound evicted from the European Exchange Rate mechanism, seemed to vindicate the ICC’s contention that EMU was doomed to failure. However, with hindsight, ‘Black Wednesday’ also marked the beginning, particularly in the UK, of a new prolonged resurgence in capitalist accumulation that has done more to rebut their theory of decadence than any number of articles we could have written. However, our failure to deal seriously with the general problems of periodisations left us little prepared to deal with other dubious attempts at the periodisation of capitalism. Indeed, in Part Three we flirted with the fallacious attempt to periodise the capitalist mode of production in terms of the transition of formal to real subsumption of labour under capital. This periodisation had become fashionable in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly amongst Francophone ‘ultra-leftists’. This periodisation seemed appealing to us at the time since it seemed to root the history of capitalism in terms of the ‘capital-labour’ relation rather than in the corresponding ‘capital-capital’ relations evident in the traditional Marxists periodisation of a transition from laissez-faire to monopoly capitalism. However, what was later to become clear to us was that the attempt to construct a periodisation of capitalism on the basis of some once and for all transition from formal to real subsumption of labour to capital is both misconceived and untenable.
  • 10. Indeed, it is only with the summary of Part One at the beginning of Part Two that it at all becomes clear that what we saw as the fundamental ‘ontological’ problem with the orthodoxy of the both the second and third internationals was that they were based on an ‘objectivist Marxism’.
  • 11. Perhaps the clearest example of the political implications that could arise from this ‘ontological dualism’ can be seen in Lenin’s What is to be Done? In this work it may be argued that the revolutionary subject is not the proletariat but the professional revolutionaries. Being drawn from mainly from the intelligentsia these revolutionary subjects are assumed to stand apart from the object that is to be transformed – i.e. capitalist society. Once armed with the science of Marxism the professional revolutionaries seek to transform society by harnessing the elemental powers of class struggle by organising and bring consciousness to the working masses from the outside – who, of course, are on their own are deemed only capable of reaching ‘trade union consciousness’.
  • 12. ‘Polemic with Aufheben: An Attack on Decadence is an attack on Marxism’, World Revolution no 168, October 1993. Available at:
    The main thrust of ICC’s polemic was to characterise us as academics who were attempting to poison Marxism with a ‘lethal dose of anarchism’. With much of the beginning of the polemic devoted to the ridiculous argument that because we had a ‘pretentious’ German title we must therefore be armchair academics, it was relatively easy for us at the time to dismiss out of hand their entire criticisms. However, with hindsight it must be admitted that at points in their polemic their arguments are quite sharp and perceptive. They certainly were able to deftly exploit the fact that at the time we had yet to critically rethink many of the notions and formulations that we had inherited from both anarchism and the various heterodox currents of Marxism, particularly with regard to ‘revolutionary subjectivity’.
  • 13. This was one of the more perceptive criticisms put forward by Théorie Communiste (TC) in their introduction to their French translation of ‘The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory’ – an English translation of which was reproduced in Aufheben no.11, 2003. However, Théorie Communiste’s own purported solution to the problem of orthodox Marxism’s dichotomy between the subjective and the objective does not stand up to any close scrutiny. As becomes evident through an examination of both their adoption of a positivist view of history, with its post hoc determinism in which subjective ideas and actions are reduced to their objective results, and with their schematic and structuralist periodisation of capitalism, in which objective material social relations of a period are assumed to be immediately and unequivocally expressed subjectively, Théorie Communiste’s ‘mutual involvement of the subjective and objective’ merely ends up collapsing the subjective into the objective. As a result, far from overcoming the dichotomies of orthodox Marxism, Théorie Communiste ultimately into a fatalistic objectivism – (albeit, perhaps, an objectivism of the ‘totality’ not the ‘economic’). As such, they effectively reproduce, albeit in a more sophisticated and all-encompassing form, the theoretical and political dead end of economistic vulgar Marxism, which as we have pointed out the leading figures of orthodox Marxism overcame more than a hundred years ago.
  • 14. See introduction to the Autonomist articles in this volume.
Aufheben- Decadence.pdf852.83 KB

Aufheben - Inside movements

Aufheben articles from inside movements.

Articles in this series -

Auto Struggles: The Developing War Against the Road Monster
Kill or Chill - An analysis of the Opposition to the Criminal Justice Bill
Dole autonomy versus the re-imposition of work: analysis of the current tendency to workfare in the UK
Anti-Capitalism as an Ideology... and as a Movement?

Aufheben magazine emerged from the need of a number of people involved in struggles to develop theory adequate to those struggles.1 Writing about the struggles we are involved in has therefore always been a central part of the nature and function of the magazine. In the early 1990s, around the same time that Aufheben was first being planned, the UK anti-roads movement emerged in the form of a direct action campaign. At this time, we and those who shared our analysis were in the doldrums politically. There was an aura of defeat following the weakness of opposition to the Gulf War;2 there was a low level of strike activity – this was only five years or so after the defeat of the miners’ strike; and the high points of the poll tax rebellion had not been the start of a new wave of struggle, and in fact were becoming a fading memory.

The struggle against roads seemed interesting, at least. Here was an example of militant collective activity involving a new generation of activists. Not only that, while we could grasp the issue of road-building as a current tension point in capital’s endless need for self-expansion and hence as a class issue, the struggle was outside the production process. The potential of such ‘environmental’ struggles to become conscious sites of conflict with capital were there from the beginning, therefore. But a superficial glance, seeing only the rhetoric of the campaigns (with their frequent references to ‘local’, ‘green’, ‘environmental’, ‘spiritual’ and ‘democratic’ issues), might have missed the unfolding of this potential into actual, as the dynamic of the struggles in practice took them beyond the words and concepts of many of the participants. Some of us therefore went along to participate in the campaigns at Twyford3 and the M11 in East London. In doing so, we came to develop our own ideas.

In writing these articles, therefore, we were not external researchers but part of the events. On the one hand, through the articles we sought to contextualize the events, and to bring to bear certain ideas to the understanding of what was happening with the anti-roads and other movements. But it is perhaps the raw experience conveyed in some of these articles that makes them engaging to read, and is one of the reasons that they have been grouped together for this volume. That direct ‘insider’ position thus meant not only discovering tendencies and acknowledging nuances we might otherwise have missed, but a passion and a feeling in our analysis. These were exciting events – some of the most exciting and enjoyable in our lives – and some of that excitement finds its way onto the page. On the other hand, therefore, getting involved in these campaigns affected us –not only emotionally but also in terms of ideas. Through our participation in the anti-roads movement, we came to develop our ideas about non-workplace-based class struggles; our anti-roads articles and the experiences they is based on were important for our theoretical development.

In fact, we eventually went beyond some of the ‘new’ ideas expressed in the anti-roads articles. At least in the case of ‘Auto-struggles: The developing war against the road monster’, which is reprinted below, when we look closely now at what we have written, one of the things that grates is some of our own use of certain concepts and categories from the ‘revolutionary’ milieu. Specifically, since this article was written, we developed a critique of autonomia, and wouldn’t now use some of the concepts from Negri in the uncritical way we did back in 1994. In our defence, these ideas did make sense at the time as we tried to develop an alternative to the ‘workerism’4 that failed to grasp the significance of the new anti-roads struggles.

When ‘Auto-struggles’ was first published, in Summer 1994, we were a little nervous about how it would be received by our friends on Claremont Road, which by then had become the iconic and practical heart of the ‘No M11’ campaign.5 However, as shared experiences within the campaign served to validate much of our class analysis, the more influential No M11 activists became increasingly receptive to our way of talking and thinking. So much so that one of us was sometimes asked to speak publicly on behalf of the campaign, as if he was a ‘representative’ No M11 activist. Part of ‘Auto Struggles’ was then reprinted by some Earth Firsters to help their comrades understand the social-material context of what was too often interpreted by eco-militants as little more than a moral issue. Not long afterwards, we were asked to give a presentation to folk in Brighton about the significance of the events in Wanstead and Leytonstone. The text of this presentation was then reproduced in collection of articles by other ‘No M11’ activists, then worked up into a pamphlet by us,6 and finally expanded into a chapter in this book.7 The increasing popularity of what was at the time a novel perspective on the anti-roads and ‘environmental’ movement reflected the fact that more people were moving towards a class position; many liberal ideological shibboleths were being challenged practically. We were a part of that move.

The No M11 campaign overlapped with the beginning of the UK-wide movement against the Criminal Justice Bill (CJB), and not just in terms of time. Many of the points above apply equally to the CJB article ‘Kill or chill?’, reprinted here. We were active in the local and national campaign, and enjoyed just as much as the next person the humiliation of the cops at the Hyde Park riot in 1994. It was experiences like this that for many participants clarified the role of the state and the police in imposing an alien order. But, again, there were many liberals in the campaign and hence lots of arguments. Theoretically one of the things that was useful about this article was the historical situating of the nature of the CJB struggle in the retreat of social democracy, a theme we elaborated later, particularly in the ‘Dole autonomy’ article.

The anti-roads movement diversified not only into the anti-CJB campaign but also the anti-car Reclaim the Streets (RTS). RTS itself formed the basis of the UK part of the world-wide ‘anti-capitalist’ movement. ‘Anti-capitalism as ideology... and as movement?’ was written in Sept 2001, when the movement (such as it was) was already in decline – at least from the UK perspective. This article reads as much less sanguine than the roads and CJB articles. We were less excited than previously, and somewhat less involved, too. This was despite the fact that many in this ‘movement’, unlike the No M11 and CJB campaigns, explicitly referred not only to ‘capitalism’ but to the movement itself as ‘anti-capitalist’.8 Of course, we were initially as excited and intrigued as everyone; and we and our friends again took part in at least some of the actions, including travelling abroad. But the summit-hopping aspect – a characteristic feature of a movement that was not grounded in the ‘everyday’ – that worried us was also one of the features that eventually worried other participants. Combined with burn-out and the battering at Genoa, the ‘movement’ had perhaps already passed its peak when the attack on the World Trade Centre towers meant that ‘anti-war’ replaced ‘anti-capitalism’ as the main concern for many people.

The emergence of the anti-roads movement and the decline of the anti-capitalist movement respectively mark the beginning and end of the 1990s. This period might be thought of perhaps as a time of transition in the UK. It was a time that saw the emergence of a new generation of activists who knew little if nothing of our earlier heritage of (reading backwards) the poll tax riot, miners’ strike, peace movement, and the entrenched working class militancy of the 1970s. It was also a transition time for capital in the UK, as it sought finally to confront the by-products of the Thatcher years – in particular, a huge army of the unemployed who had by now themselves become entrenched. If the dole as a living alternative to work was one of the fruits of the social democratic compromise, then the rationalization of the benefits system in order to kick some life into what had become an inefficient two-tier labour market was clearly part of the continuing retreat of social democracy. Our analysis of changes to the benefits system, and the resistance to these changes, was important in the development of our ideas around this theme of retreat of social democracy.

It was sometimes suggested that we inflated the significance of the dole and local struggles around it. Certainly we seemed to write a lot of articles about it! This was for a number of reasons.
First, we saw the changes taking place in the benefits system as important in the general restructuring happening at the time, especially in relation to the theory of the ‘refusal of work’ that had been developed in the years previously.

Second, we like many of our friends and comrades had been on the dole for long periods through the 1980s and 90s. We were involved in a crucial argument about how to fight the threatened changes. Many of those in the nationwide network of groups campaigning against the reforms to the dole shared an adherence to individualistic anarchist strategies based on the accumulated experience of oppression and resistance in JobCentres. Favoured methods included giving advice to individual claimants on how to avoid crap jobs and penalties (‘duck and dive’), and targeting individual JobCentre workers. Against these method (which in fact many claimants do anyway) we argued that collective action was needed. In particular, claimants themselves were too small and weak on their own and needed to coordinate opposition with JobCentre workers who were themselves in dispute with their management. Indeed, we saw in the arguments for ‘duck and dive’ and tactics to threaten JobCentre-workers9 (which were largely all bluster anyway) the way in which features of the original ‘refusal of work’ had now become a rigid doctrine standing in the way of practical resistance. This version of ‘the refusal of work’ was not based on a revolutionary class analysis, but was rather a militant sectional position-statement of claimants against those slightly more powerful than themselves.

As well as arguing with fellow claimants in the nationwide campaign, we were also involved in arguments with other claimant activists who seemed to be involved in every other campaign but that around the dole. In the 1980s the dole was the activists’ grant. The activists of the 1990s too tried to use the dole in this way. As we say in the ‘Dole autonomy’ article, you could not squat up a tree full-time to block a road unless there was a liveable unemployed benefit system to sustain you. What frustrated us at the time was that many of those who relied so heavily on this ‘grant’ didn’t seemed to recognise that it should therefore be the focus of their struggles – at least not until too late. The fact that so many people privileged others’ struggles (for example, in Papua New Guinea – or anywhere but at home), seeing them as somehow ‘more deserving’ than their own needs was evidence that the dead-end of liberal moralism we had fought against was still a major influence. Indeed, the individualizing experience of the dole, and the personalized lifestyles that flourished on it, both encouraged such liberalism.

Though this article, written at a time when we were most active in the dole campaign, conveys some of our excitement at our small victories, in fact this campaign was by far the least influential of the four ‘inside struggles’ described here. We may have frightened the JobCentre managers, but there was only on a couple of occasions a significant mass mobilization against what was in effect a massive attack on the working class as a whole.

The M11 link road was built, an ‘urban motorway’ through leafy Wanstead. But the anti-roads movement grew bigger immediately afterwards with the development of the national campaign against the Newbury by-pass. The movement only fell into a decline when the government abandoned the roads programme. The political controversy and financial costs incurred by the direct action movement must take a large part of the credit for the failure of what was originally planned to be ‘the biggest road building programme since the Romans’, according to Government hubris.
The Criminal Justice Bill was passed. Vestiges of the anti-CJB movement – in the form of networks and links made between various opponents of the Bill (including inspiring connections between workplace and non-workplace struggles)10 – continued, however.

The ‘anti-capitalist movement’ has shrunk in size. It still makes a show of protest whenever there is a G8 summit but in somewhat ritualistic form;11 there is little sense of ongoing development in the movement now.

The UK government did not in the end impose the workfare-type system they promised at the time of ‘Dole autonomy’. The incoming Labour Government’s ‘New Deal’ had workfare-like elements; but by the time it was introduced, the economy was already beginning to recover. It was this economic recovery that absorbed many of the unemployed back into the workforce and meant that the targets for reducing unemployment were met anyway. The networks of opposition fizzled out, and the dole is now a much harsher place, than in the 1980s and 90s. At the time of writing, the UK is in recession and unemployment rising again. At the same time, the Government have again suggested the possibility of a workfare-like scheme, an idea, it seems, that will raise its ugly head again and again, whether as serious policy or merely as a public display of getting ‘tough’ on those of us who have apparently lost the will and skills to return to the labour market.

Articles in this series -

Auto Struggles: The Developing War Against the Road Monster
Kill or Chill - An analysis of the Opposition to the Criminal Justice Bill
Dole autonomy versus the re-imposition of work: analysis of the current tendency to workfare in the UK
Anti-Capitalism as an Ideology... and as a Movement?

  • 1. See ‘Theoretical criticism and practical overthrow’, in Aufheben #15, 2007.
  • 2. See ‘Lessons of the struggle against the Gulf War’ in Aufheben #1, Autumn 1992.
  • 3. See Intakes: Some critical notes on ‘Earth First!’ in Aufheben #1, Autumn 1992.
  • 4. In this context (and rather confusingly, given that autonomia was itself originally called operaismo – i.e. ‘workerism’), we refer here to those leftists, such as the Socialist Workers Party, for whom only struggles in the workplace were understood as necessarily having revolutionary potential. Their dogma was eventually outweighed by their opportunism; by the time the anti-roads movement had been superseded by world-wide ‘anti-capitalism’, the SWP had seen the light and jumped onto the bandwagon with their front Globalize Resistance.
  • 5. The end of the beginning. Claremont Road: E11 not M11. Leeds: Clare-zine (1995.)
  • 6. Still available from our website at
  • 7. ‘The politics of anti-road struggle and the struggles of anti-road politics: The case of the No M11 Link Road campaign’ in George McKay (Ed.) DiY culture: Party and protest in nineties Britain. London: Verso.
  • 8. The predominance of the term ‘anti-capitalist’, like the difference in timing of the ebb and flow of the movement, was also something peculiar to the UK. Elsewhere, the movement was more typically referred to as ‘anti-globalization’ or ‘global justice’.
  • 9. The most controversial of these was ‘three strikes and you’re out’. This method personalized the issue by identifying the individual JobCentre workers who had issued sanctions three times by threatening to plaster their names and pictures all over town (with the obvious implication that they should be meted summary class justice’). While some JobCentres undoubtedly had more of these jobsworths than others, such tactics played into management’s hands and undermined attempts to create an effective alliance against management. The ‘policing’ element was only a small part of the role of the JobCentre client adviser, one that many used their discretion with, and it was in out view badly misconceived and far removed from a proper class analysis to place such workers (many of them having to live on benefits and in conditions of insecurity) on a par with the police.
  • 10. See ‘The politics of anti-road struggle…’ op. cit. The Brighton activist news-sheet Schnews is a further example of a campaigning feature of the CJB struggle which continues to this day.
  • 11. See ‘Intake: Inside and outside the G8 protests’ in Aufheben # 14, 2006.