Riff-Raff No. 8: Communist Theory Beyond the Ultra-Left

Issue 8 of Riff-Raff, a Swedish journal influenced by left communist and autonomist Marxist strains, published in autumn 2006.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on June 22, 2011

The main part of this issue is dedicated to a presentation of the group Théorie communiste and their attempt to, with the help of a periodisation of and with the magnifying glass next to capital and the class struggle, try to understand the content and meaning of the historically past cycles of struggles as well as the current situation. As usual, we look at what a proletarian revolution has to be today, what openings to communism that can emerge as a response to the exploitation by capital. In connection to this, we come in contact with the ‘communising current’ – what is it and what does it want? In a second part follows a debate around Marcel’s text from the last issue and a discussion on the crisis–collapse problematic. The last part make up the Marx–Engels series in which we this time is coming with fresh Swedish translations of two letters by Marx and a selection from The holy family.

-riff-raff: Introduction

Communist Theory Beyond the Ultra-left
-Aufheben: Introduction: The workers’ movement, communism and the ultra-left

-Théorie communiste: Background and Perspective

-Théorie communiste: Communist Theory

-Aufheben: Decadence: The theory of decline or the decline of theory (reprise)

-Théorie communiste: Aufheben’s ‘Decadence’: A response

-Théorie communiste: From ‘Pour en finir avec la critique du travail’

-Aufheben: A reply to Théorie communiste

-A former member of Aufheben: Introduction to ‘A reply to Aufheben’

-Théorie communiste: A reply to Aufheben

-Théorie communiste: Normative History and the Communist Essence of the Proletariat. Critique of ‘When Insurrections Die’ by Gilles Dauvé

-Meeting: Invitation

-Gilles Dauvé: Communisation: A ‘Call’ and An ‘Invitation’ (No English translation)

-Roland Simon & riff-raff: Interview with Roland Simon

-Théorie communiste: Self-organisation is the first act of the revolution; it then becomes an obstacle which the revolution has to overcome.

-Théorie communiste / Alcuni fautori della comunizzazione: A fair amount of killing

-Per Henriksson: Communism as refusal and attack. Some notes on ‘Communism of Attack and Communism of Withdrawal’

-Björkhagengruppen: On the Critique of Political Economy. Critical reflections around ‘Communism of Attack and Communism of Withdrawal’

-Marcel: Attack/Withdrawal

-Chris Wright: Crisis, Constitution and Capital

Marx/Engels series
-Karl Marx / Friedrich Engels: (Excerpts from) The Holy Family or Critique of Critical Criticism. Against Bruno Bauer and Company

-Karl Marx: Letter to Ferdinand Freiligrath in London, 29 February 1860

-Karl Marx: Letter to Wilhelm Blos in Hamburg, 10 November 1877


11 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Juan, thanks so much for setting this up!

I wonder where these texts are:

-Théorie communiste: From ‘Pour en finir avec la critique du travail’

-Aufheben: A reply to Théorie communiste

-A former member of Aufheben: Introduction to ‘A reply to Aufheben’

I thought that we had everything from Aufheben up on here already

Juan Conatz

11 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

They are on the riff-raff site, along with some of the other pieces that I'll get around to adding. This issue seemed to have the most stuff that's not on here.


11 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Actually there are a few articles from Aufheben 12 missing, e.g. the review of Kolinko's call centre inquiry. I remember seeing it elsewhere online and will put it up here if i can re-locate it.


11 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

That would be great, thanks - it might be on reocities or that other geocities backup site called oocities or something

Juan Conatz

11 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

-Théorie communiste: From ‘Pour en finir avec la critique du travail’

-Aufheben: A reply to Théorie communiste

Neither of these were even posted on the old Geocities site. So if someone has the text to these and wants to put them up, go head. Or if they want me to do it, I'm willing, as well.

Juan Conatz

11 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org


Juan Conatz

10 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Still need to finish this.

Introduction to Riff-Raff No. 8

Introduction to the 8th issue of Riff-Raff.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on June 22, 2011

It is of greatest importance to riff-raff as a project to engage in producing and making available theory that in an adequate way mirrors our experiences and makes the contemporary time of today understandable in a way that is possible to relate to. This includes trying to make a sketch of a strategical perspective on the revolution.

We realise that many of the readers of the journal feel that it has become steadily more difficult to dig into what we write in riff-raff. No one is more concerned than us with the seriousness of this problem. The more and more abstract theoretical character of the journal, however, should not be understood as a change of ambition. We understand it rather as the will to remain honest to this ambition, the ambition not to be satisfied with our pre-given conceptions. This ambition has guided the development in this direction, and, indeed, it has been a tumbling journey. At one moment you answer a question, at the other you try to supersede the problematic. Our eighth issue is no exception. However, it is our hope and belief that we this time have found some of the theoretical tools with which anew may allow us to approach the contemporary, concrete course of events in a more satisfying manner. We hope the readers will approach this issue with confidence and that you will feel that it is worth the effort to dig into the texts. As we have said before we address people who – just like us – are willing to learn something new, and who are willing to the effort the task demands to approach communist theorisation. The amount of pages this time reflect to some extent the amount of sleepless nights, late arrivals to work, missed examinations and so on that the work with this issue has implied. But after more than one and a half year of pleasant as well as hard work with translation, proof-reading, discussion and writing we are proud to finally present some really good texts that have given us a lot to think about. We hope you will experience the same toilsome journey that we did when we read and discussed these texts, because at the end of these steep paths there is a slightly more luminous summit.

Communist theory beyond the ultra-left
The perspective we have wrestled during the last 60–70 weeks is the problematic posed by the Marseilles based group/journal Théorie communiste (TC) and their attempt to produce communist theory that transcends what has come to be called the ultra-left1 . This reading has been both inflammatory, remoulding and optimist. Its consequences include critical reflections, efforts to go even further, hesitations, discussions on the practical function of theory and much more.

The novelty in this perspective is first and foremost its profound historisation of class struggle. Class struggle is not something which goes on within a perennial framework only differing in whether we for a time have a working class offensive, defensive, once more an offensive and so on. Contrary to this invariance of class struggle we, and TC, stress that class struggle has to be historised both with the thin and wide brush. The aims and content given to the proletariat by every cycle of struggle are produced by the relations in which the proletariat face capital. Thus it is the very relation between proletariat and capital that determine the possible actions. TC gives us an exciting concept – the mutual implication of the proletariat and capital – that means that neither the proletariat nor capital can be regarded as the active party driving the contradiction between classes.

In the first text following this introduction, Aufheben (no further presentation seems necessary by now) gives a good historical summary of the historical ultra-left (left communism), and the background to the French ultra-left, but it nevertheless seems appropriate to give a short history of our own to be able, then, to move on with the presentation of the perspectives in the issue.

The class struggles in the post-WWI years. Social democrats, communists and left-communists
The groups that were to become the historical ultra-left had their origins in the social democratic parties at the beginning of the last century. At first they acted within these as a Marxist left-wing tendency against the increasing bureaucratisation and the more and more obvious reformism. The years preceding 1914 Rosa Luxemburg and others violently propagated against the armaments race and the imminent world war. As early as in 1909 parts of the left in the Netherlands had found it necessary to completely break with the social democrats and to found their own party. David Wijnkoop and Herman Gorter became the leaders of this. The same did not occur in other countries until the outbreak of WWI, when social democracy finally and in open daylight proved its ‘social chauvinism’2 by voting for war credits (with the motivation that the war was a patriotic defence war), when the left in various European countries formed as formally independent parties. Initially there were no fundamental political divergences between people within this left such as for example Sylvia Pankhurst, Anton Pannekoek, Nikolai Bucharin or Vladimir Lenin, they were all very engaged in the Communist (3rd) International formed in 1919. The year of 1917 had been the start of an international revolutionary wave. In Russia, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria, Finland, generally all over Europe, and sporadically in other continents as well, fierce class struggle occurred.

In Germany the counter-revolution was embodied in the SPD3 . During November and December in 1918 Philipp Scheidemann and Friedrich Ebert of the SPD finally established a parliamentary republic. Karl Liebknecht and the KPD4 responded by organising an armed rebellion in Berlin in January 1919. It was defeated by a common offensive by the SPD, the remainings of the German army and para-military right-wing groups later to be called Freikorps. Even if the SPD with great violence suppressed workers’ rebellions the German workers, in what to some may seem as a paradox, in 1920 came to defend the Ebert Government against the nationalist Kapp–Lüttwitz Putsch. The social democratic government had initially sought help from the regular army who refused to put an end to the putsch (‘Reichswehr don’t shoot at the Reichswehr’ they said). When this did not work out the SPD instead turned to the workers and called a general strike which was massively followed. The putsch makers were defeated when the entire country was paralysed. After the putsch was over the Ebert government nonetheless recruited the same soldiers and Freikorps men that just before had tried to overthrow it to suppress the remaining rebellions in western Germany. The fierce class struggles in Germany continued until 1923.

In Russia the Bolshevik party came to power with the support of the masses of peasants in the country side and of the workers in cities such as Petrograd and Moscow. The establishment of the councils (‘spontaneously’ in 1905, with strong intervention from the Bolsheviks in 1917) provided the basis for the dual power that extinguished the tsar regime as well as the provisional government. Step by step soviet power was transferred to the Bolsheviks after October 1917 and they organised a new state apparatus. This state was, however, not more than the guardian of order – not the least the economical order –, which found its perhaps purest appearance in how it suppressed the Kronstadt rebellion in 1921, but it also went hand in hand with the ideal of the Bolshevik leaders of iron discipline in the factories. Under Stalin, so, the basis had been laid for a capitalist programme of modernisiation in the form of mass industrialisation and an extraordinarily bloody restructuring of production and of society as a whole.5

Parallel to the defeat of the international revolutionary wave the Communist International soon degenerated. Initially its aim was being an organ for spreading the world revolution, but it was transformed into an instrument for the national interests of the Russian state. The Communist parties of other countries linked to the ‘International’ ended up in being nothing more than the tentacles of Stalinist Russian dominance. The so-called Dutch–German communist left was among the first to leave the organisation (long before Stalin became its leader). It happened after polemic with Lenin in 1920 about, for example, the questions of the communist parties, the positions on parliamentary elections and on trade unions.6 Anton Pannekoek, Paul Mattick and others later became main characters of council communism and condemned Lenin and the Bolsheviks and came to see the Russian revolution as a bourgeois revolution (as opposed to the German revolution).7 Being ‘to the left of the left’ the ‘ultra-left’ became one of the labels of this, the most well known, left communist tradition.

The ultra-left and the mediations

Useful and progressive in their beginnings, the trade unions in the older capitalistic countries had turned into obstacles in the way of the liberation of the workers. They had turned into instruments of counter revolution, and the German left drew its conclusions from this changed situation.
– – –
The ultra-left declared parliamentarianism historically passé even as a tribune for agitation, and saw in it no more than a continuous source of political corruption for both parliamentarian and workers. It dulled the revolutionary awareness and consistency of the masses by creating illusions of legalistic reforms, and on critical occasions the parliament turned into a weapon of counter revolution. It had to be destroyed, or, where nothing else was possible, sabotaged. (Otto Rühle, ‘The struggle against Fascism begins with the struggle against Bolshevism’, Living Marxism vol. 4, № 8, 1939)

What clearly distinguish the ultra-left from the Leninist and other lefts is its strong emphasis on what it sees as the mediations that tie the working class to capitalist society. First and foremost in the form of the workers’ parties and the trade unions these mediations are understood as diverting the activities of the class, struggles that otherwise would be revolutionary, towards compromise and passivity, towards being integrated in the state apparatus and in the production of capital, instead of carry through the communist revolution. According to this notion it is always the immediate observable tendencies and the sporadic expressions of independent class struggle – first of all subversive actions, free of any mediation – that may question the existence of the institutions and in the end the existence of capitalism. Independent class struggle, in other words, is potentially revolutionary while the institutionalised struggles always move safely on the terrain of capital and the state. Ultra-leftism means that wherever there is class struggle (or when seeing class struggle in history) it measures its strengths, weaknesses and revolutionary potentials against to which extent it is limited, or even ‘infected’, by capitalist mediations, in short, how institutionalised it is.

We would like to stress that there were good reasons for these ideas to appear at the beginning of the last century. Indeed, the communist left produced good analyses of many fundamental issues: first and foremost that neither the social democrat nor the Leninist programme were any paths towards socialism but rather essentially capitalist. But could the decisive problem really be reduced to be such movements that from various accidental occasions managed to gain supporters and influence in the class rather than the hardline (ultra-) left advocating independent struggle? Our answer to this question is: no; what most of the ultra-left also would have said, however from different premises. From our approach, here rather influenced by TC, it is about examining how the proletariat concretely meets capital in a mutual implication, how the conditions of surplus-value production, exploitation, works in reality. The controversial conclusion which TC has drawn from this is that almost all hitherto history about the struggle between capital and labour has been a perspective of the victory of labour as the only alternative from the simple reason that the struggle had its historically specific character, due to the workers, in the struggle against capital, found their strength within their existence in their relation to capital, in short, that they remained workers. TC calls this programmatism.

Even the agenda of the ultra-left was based on victory of labour. It was so even though they, which TC find especially interesting, always criticised the real content of the struggle, that the workers were integrated in capital through their struggle.

The revolution as affirmation of the being of the class was conserved by critiquing all the existing forms of this being. 8

It was never about the ‘wrong ideas’, but always material and necessary causes existed to the affirmation of labour. When the organised workers’ movement grew strong at the end of the 19th century it was as ‘the empowerment of the class at the interior of the capitalist mode of production…: syndicalism, mass party, united front, parliamentarism.’9 This power was never reached at the expense of capital, but always lead to the strengthening of capital. The immediate ends of the struggle were only possible to reach through the capitalist mode of production, which at the same time was being revolutionised, that labour was further subsumed under capital. When the communist left in Germany in the 1920s confronted the parliament and the trade unions and posed factory committees and workers’ councils it regarded this as being the really revolutionary struggle as opposed to reformism and class collaboration. But despite the critique of these mediations its perspective remained the affirmation of the working class. For the ultra-left the ‘revolutionary workers’ councils’ were the bodies for the organisation of the future communist society. This model (many times very rich) included workers’ democracy, planning, collective forms of work and the distribution of the result of production according the work of each and every member.

But in this case communism is no more than the management of production by the proletariat within the already given categories: property (collective, social, state…), division of labour, exchange, development of productive forces, existence of an economy…10

The Left only saw the integration taking place in the passage to real subsumption in the mediations of the empowerment of the class, and separated these mediations from the definition of the proletariat as class of the capitalist mode of production.11

The analysis of the Dutch–German communist left, however, does not end with the defeat of the revolution in 1923. With the deepening of real subsumtion the communist left faced a situation, with its background in the ongoing class struggle, where the actions containing the affirmation of the class at the same time as they fights the mediations contains a contradiction. With this in mind TC conclude that the Dutch–German communist left does not get stuck in this dead-end. ‘[I]t had, almost despite itself …, produced the conditions and the theoretical arms for its overcoming.’ What the ultra-left did not manage to articulate, however, was that the class ‘in its definition as class of the capitalist mode of production [finds] the capacity and the necessity to negate itself as a class in its contradiction with capital.’12

From the victory of labour to the abolition of the proletariat

While TC says that the workers’ movement was captured within the framework of programmatism (i.e. the victory of labour) they nevertheless see another perspective for the struggle today. They pose revolution as the abolition of the proletariat through the abolition of capital. One thing that distinguish TC from other communist theorists close to them, such as Gilles Dauvé and Karl Nesic, is that, while the latter say that the self-abolition of the proletariat has been possible since the 19th Century, TC on the contrary say that their ‘faith’ in the new perspective – and the actual explanation to this theoretical horizon has been brought into daylight – has to be derived from the relations hitherto determining the conflict between capital and proletariat that has been transformed into other relations. They conclude that this appeared with a restructuring of the capitalist mode of production that started in the middle of the 1970s that, so to speak, ‘changed everything’.

We publish one text in the present issue in which TC criticise Dauvé and his ‘When insurrections die’. In ‘Normative history and the communist essence of the proletariat’ TC address the fundamentally normative nature of Dauvé’s reasoning about the defeat of earlier proletarian movements (Spain in 1936, for example). They criticise Dauvé for not coming up with any real explanation of the failure of these movements, more than that they failed (to dissolve themselves) due to not being able to come any further, which doesn’t really say anything at all. They disagree with the way Dauvé, in his text, blame the workers involved and suggests what they should have done instead of what they actually did. According to TC the reasoning of Dauvé is the inescapable result of his perspective of a revolutionary nature of the proletariat, an always slumbering revolution, immanent to the very definition of the proletariat, only waiting for a breakthrough independent of the real relations between the classes. Against this essentialist definition of the proletariat TC conclude that the proletariat and capital only exist in their immediate relation to each other. The counter-strike of Dauvé, and others, has been to accuse TC of being determinists and schematically over-done.13

We say that TC’s historisation of struggles offers a new possibility as it at the same time acknowledges the role of the proletariat in a communist revolution and understands the class’ revolution as a revolution against the existence of classes. To abandon the perspective of revolution as the affirmation of the class has been the theme for several issues of riff-raff, especially since the concept of communisation was introduced in the Swedish vocabulary. It seems as though this historisation has solved some of the problems that we have tried to approach in our theorisation of the possible materialisation of communism, but the dissolution of these problems apparently turns into new ones, and no less difficult. The sword through this Gordian knot has yet to see the light of day.

Real subsumption: how capital historically becomes a totality
We regard it as impossible to approach the theorisation of Théorie communiste without considering the importance they make of the two categories: ‘formal’ and ‘real subsumption’. In the first volume of Capital Marx only mentions these concepts in passing (and the Swedish translation is really bad at that and totally misses the opportunity to introduce the concepts).

Marx formulates the concepts of formal and real subsumption in his analysis of the immediate process of production. He talks about capital formally subsuming labour when it puts a historically already existing process of production at its feet. Surplus-value in its absolute form can be extracted by formerly independent artisans no longer possessing the fruits of their labour but instead forced to hand them over to the capitalist. However, the methods of work and skills are not given by capital. When Marx treats real subsumption he describes the process in which the labour-process is radically transformed by capital to fit its need for valorisation. The different methods of intensifying labour – co-operation, the introduction of machinery – has the production of relative surplus-value as its result. In this process capital also put science to use for its own needs, which has become an instrument of capital in the continuous transformation of the labour-process.

It is more thoroughly discussed in the ‘chapter’ of Capital excluded from the published editions of Capital, ‘The immediate process of production’. In Capital Vol I, as we know it from the four editions, ‘formal’ and ‘real subsumption’ appear in chapter 1614 , section 5 under the heading ‘Absolute and relative surplus-value’:

The production of absolute surplus-value turns exclusively on the length of the working day, whereas the production of relative surplus-value completely revolutionizes the technical processes of labour and the groupings into which society is divided.

It therefore requires a specifically capitalist mode of production, a mode of production which, along with its methods, means and condistions, arises and develops spontaneously on the basis of the formal subsumtion of labour under capital. This formal subsumtion is then replaced by a real subsumption. 15

Well, what TC and we, rather boldly, are admitting is that we go beyond Marx’s formulation in Capital and the concepts of ‘formal’ and ‘real subsumtion’ for us implies a wider definition than the narrow tie to the (assumed) immediate process of production. The concepts are regarded as being extended beyond the immediate process of production and are only valid instruments in capitalism as society, as totality, and in the conceptualisation of the reproduction of classes and class relations.

[T]he result of the process of production and realization is, above all, the reproduction and new production of the relation of capital and labour itself, of capitalist and worker. This social relation, production relation, appears in fact as an even more important result of the process than its material result.16

It is directly from what Marx himself writes that we can, or rather are obliged to, go beyond Marx, since, as Roland Simon says on page 221 in this issue17 : ‘relative surplus-value can only exist if the commodities which enter into the reproduction of labour power are themselves produced in a capitalist manner. So in that sense real subsumption can not be defined simply on the basis of the transformation of the process of production.’ (our emphasis)

With the real subsumption of labour under capital, we say, the (apparently) immediate process of production absorbs society as a whole in its process as a process of reproduction and accumulation, i.e. valorisation puts the capitalist society under its feet. To paraphrase another word of Marx, capital becomes, in the historical-real sense, adequate to its concept (logically). Chris Arthur talks about this historical-conceptual relation:

It is inherent to the concept of capital that it must reproduce and accumulate, and in this it seeks to overcome all obstacles and to make the material reality it engages with conform as perfectly as possible to its requirements. But it takes time to do this, namely to make a reality of its ideal world of frictionless circulation and growth. Its opposite pole, labour, is indeed recalcitrant much of the time to the demands capital imposes on it. Thus, although the category of ‘real subsumption’ is logically implicit in the concept of capital, being required to perfect it, in actual fact a whole series of revolutions in the capitalist mode of production were requiered to create the requisite conditions for capital’s vindication of its hegemony.18

With real subsumption, i.e. in the sense of when the capital relation becomes adequate for its concept, when capitalism as a society becomes an organism, capital becomes its own precondition, what TC calls the ‘self-presupposition of capital’. Marx says in the Grundrisse:

While in the completed bourgeois system every economic relation presupposes every other in its bourgeois economic form, and everything posited is thus also a presupposition, this is the case with every organic system. This organic system itself, as a totality, has its presuppositions, and its development to its totality consists precisely in subordinating all elements of society to itself, or in creating out of it the organs which it still lacks. This is historically how it becomes a totality. the process of becoming this totality forms a moment of its process, of its development.19

It is from this perspective we see real subsumption, as a historical period, as essentially a 20th century phenomenon and not as a fact that emerged with the spinning machine.

The double mill and the reproduction of capital and labour
Double moulinet is the French translation of the German term Zwickmühle which appears only once in Capital, volume I, in the last paragraph of chapter 23. Zwickmühle originates from the thousands of years old game Mill20 , but is used metaphorically in the German language for ‘grave dilemma’, to be caught in a trap or in an iron grip. Zwicken means to ‘pinch’ and Mühle means ‘mill’. There is an idea that Marx, when he writes Zwickmühle in fact is aiming at exactly a position in the Mill game and that the term therefore has a deeper meaning than simply ‘dilemma’ or ‘trap’. In the Mill game Zwickmühle is a particularly advantageous situation which a player can reach in order to strike at his opponent. In English you say that you are building a ‘double mill’.

Figure I. Double mill in motion. The reproduction of capital and labour?

The original French translator of Das Kapital, Joseph Roy, decided to play on the sense of mill and came up with double moulinet, explicitly evoking the image of two cogs or cycles, with the added benefit that a moulinet was also a grinder. It seems as though Roy got a good approximation, at least Marx seemed to think so as he supervised the translation and even claimed it was better than the original. Which is more than can be said for his English counterparts; the first English edition simply refuses to translate the word. We think the reasonable translation would simply be ‘double mill’.21 Since Marx, the French translation of this term has developed a life of its own in the work of French marxists.

This disquisition of the Mill game is of value in context because TC makes such a big deal about it and they think that it sheds light on an important problematic. The analogy is used to illustrate a picture of the whole of the capitalist mode of production and the reproduction of its classes, its self-presupposition. How does this reproduction come about?

The whole contests according to Marx of ‘the reproduction and new production of the relation of capital and labour itself…’, between the working class and the capitalist class. TC insists on that it is via Marx’s concept of exploitation, that is to say the conditions for the extraction of surplus labour, that makes it possible to illuminate how the capitalist society and its class contradictions are reproduced as a totality and expressed as such.

Exploitation, which is the content of the relation, can be deconstructed into three moments: the selling and purchasing of labour power; capital’s subsumtion of labour; the transformation of the surplus-value into additional capital, i.e. to new transformed means of production and new, transformed labour power. 22

Seen through the analogy of the Mill game, the first mill in the double mill is the reproduction of labour power. In this reproduction such things as the housing of the workers, education, migration etc. is included. Here are ‘all the separations, defences, specifications that are erected in opposition to the decline in value of the work force, those that prevent the whole working class, globally, in the continuity of its existence, of its reproduction and expansion, from having to face as such the whole capital…’23 The second mill is the reproduction of capital: the constant turnovers, how surplus value is transformed into additional capital. Also there exists a set of constraints: ‘Any surplus product must be able to find its market anywhere, any surplus value must be able to find anywhere the possibility of operating as additional capital, that is of being transformed into means of production and labour power…‘24 In this relation, one of the cycles – the reproduction of one of it’s poles –, is determined immediately by the other cycle and its reproduction; one cog can only spin through the spin of the other and vice versa.

TC is telling us that during a first historical phase of real subsumtion, stretching from after the second world war up to the beginning of the 1970s, the accumulation of capital could for a period be secured in compromises within, in the first place, national frameworks. The production of surplus value could for example work hand in hand with building of the welfare states, with regulated labour markets etc., which at the same time guaranteed the existence of the workers. They say that it was during these conditions that the workers’ movement, a workers’ identity and reformist politics could find its clearest raison d’être. However, the crisis that appeared in the beginning of the 1970s marked a break with this compromise, because at the same time as the victories of the workers’ movement had been achieved hand in hand with the integration of the reproduction of labour with the capital relation and the deeper exploitation of the labour power, the power of the working class (how the working class, for capital, was divided into geographically separated spheres of exploitation etc.) made up fixed points which became too rigid and came to make up a drag on the self-presupposition of capital, a hindrance for a smooth flow from one cycle to the other. The workers’ uprisings in the 1970s was according to TC a rebellion aimed at the restraints that was demanded by capital in order to maintain the social contract.

To the demand for self-sacrifice in order ‘to get out of the crisis’ it cheerfully replied that the obligation of wage-labour merited only a quick death.

The capitalist class took up the challenge laid down by this vast movement of labour revolts. From the right to the left, it was a matter of clearing all the obstacles to the even flow of exploitation and its reproduction. In opposition to the previous cycle of struggles the restructuring abolished all specification: statutes, welfare, fordian compromise, division of the global cycle into national zones of accumulation, into a fixed relation between centre and periphery or into zones of internal accumulation (East/West). The workers movement disappeared and working class identity became a retro chic.25

The restructuring at work since the middle of the seventies renders the process of the total reproduction of society adequate to the production of relative surplus-value, in so far as it no longer comports any fixed point in the double moulinet of the reproduction of the whole which ceaselessly reproduces and resituates the proletariat and capital face to face…26

These huge upheavals and their underlying causes have been given many names: ‘globalisation’, ‘the neo-liberal offensive’, ‘the fall of communism’ and so on. An advantage of TC’s model of the restructuring27 , in contrast with many others, is that we think that it looks carefully grounded in Marx’s categories.28 It is undoubtably not ‘the right’ who is the villain responsible for these attacks and not even the announcement of the fall of the workers’ movement seems to be a lie made up by the bourgeois press. Rather it is the serious result of a global counter revolution, by the restructuring. But can we after the disappearence of the workers’ identity really see a glimpse of light or has the victory of labour simply been replaced by the infinite poverty of the proletarians? We do not find the answers to these questions in any speculative twisting of words but by fixing our eyes on the concrete class struggle, on the new arenas of struggle29 which has already been opened up.

Let us first just give the floor to TC to sum up what the analogy with the double mill can give:

As a matter of fact, the worker is caugt in a trap but the strength of the image of the ‘double moulinet’ lies in the fact that it shows that he owes not his position and definition to a manoeuver but to a structural definition of reproduction. The proletariat cannot abolish capital without abolishing itself at the same time. (You get this idea in the phrase ‘double moulinet’.) If understanding the contradictory reproduction through the ‘double moulinet’ dismisses the liberation of the class, it nevertheless induces a terrible question: how can the abolition of its own rules be part and parcel of the game, as a relation between its terms and also as a movement of the whole? In the contradiction between its poles is the object itself (the mode of production) which is in contradiction with itself. Because capital is a contradiction in process proletariat against capital includes the negation of its own existence.

To answer this question would amount to reconsider the whole analysis of the contradictory course of the capitalist mode of production, not only as contradictory and reflexive game between two classes which constitute the two poles of the same whole, but as an internal movement within a whole which has two poles. It is only in apprehending contradiction (exploitation) as the internal movement of a whole that we will be able to grasp the way in which the game comes to the abolition of its own rule and in no way the transient and random victory of one of the players (who actually is always the same one).

Exploitation makes it possible to build class struggle as contradiction, what is to say: a reciprocal but non-symetrical implication (subsumption); a process in contradiction with its own reproduction (the fall of the rate of profit), a whole of which each element exists only as a definition of its other in contradiction with it and from there with itself (productive labour and accumulation of capital, surplus labour and necessary labour).30

All this only functions if we achieve understanding the fall of the rate of profit as a contradiction between the classes and as a questionning of the proletarait by itself in the movement when the whole is, in its dynamics, contradictory to itself as the activity of a class.31 (Roland Simon in an e-mail to riff-raff, September 14, 2006)

From self-organisation to communisation

With the restructuring of the capitalist mode of production, the contradiction between the classes is found at the level of their respective reproduction. In its contradiction with capital, the proletariat puts itself into question.32

Presumably the most important of the texts by Théorie communiste that we have translated is Self-organisation is the first act of the revolution; it then becomes an obstacle which the revolution has to overcome. It is also the TC-text which comes closest to some sort of manifesto. This text was written in 2005 and deals with the characteristics of contemporary class struggle and what TC considers to be different from before. As basis for this argumentation we find a number of contemporary and historical examples of struggles from different countries, for example Italy, France, Argentina and Algeria. The emphasis lies on the question of how a revolutionary opening can be created out of the existing immideate struggles and the sharp qualitative rupture which a revolutionary process according to them has to entail, by necessity.

In contrast with the view of communism as a paradise on earth that we are to enter ‘after the revolution’, TC understands (together with Dauvé and others) the communist revolution in our time as that of communisation, the immediate suppression of all capitalist relations: wage labour, exchange, division of labour, property, the state and all the classes in society.

The proletarian revolution is centered around the dissolution of the proletariat, and therefore the proletariat’s movement of communisation will by necessity come in contradiction with its own self-organisation as a class. This is due to the fact that self-organisation does not go beyond the organisation of proletarians as proletarians.

The supersession of really existing self-organisation will not be accomplished by the production of the ‘true’, the ‘right’, the ‘good’ self-organisation, it will be achieved against really existing self-organisation, but within it, from it.33

In light of this view on the supersession of self-organisation, TC maintains that the teories of workers’ autonomy become insufficient and that they can not be be used to grasp the process of revolution. The bottom line, however, is not that autonomous, self-organised struggles (for example occupations of factories) are ‘bad’ (since they can not be revolutionary measures). Instead TC says that they in actual fact are indispensable, that this is the way class struggle has to express itself initially. If the possible revolution can not be anything but the thorough communisation of society34 , this communisation also has to start from somewhere, and it has to emerge out of the class contradictions of this society. Thus, the opening for a social movement of communisation arises out of the self-organisation, but as a break, a rupture, with it. It would be absurd to be against self-organisation by principle.

A central idea in the text, which we find immensely important, is that the syndicalism which characterises all everyday class struggles can not be explained by the existence of trade unions, or that this nature would somehow disappear in the struggle outside the union; syndicalism does not exist because of institutionalisation. But if trade unions organise proletarians as workers and go into negotiations with the buyer of labour power, while the self-organised, autonomous workers struggle defends the proletarians conditions of life as proletarians, is it then any differences of importance between them? Yes and no. However, the difference is not found in that the former are the administrators of labour while the latter represent the revolt against work.

On the other hand, there is an important distinction between trade union and self-organisation when it comes to the possibilities for how far the syndicalist struggle can be fought. In the text TC claim that first self-organisation must be reached and triumph in order to be superseded later, and that this is the only way in which the proletarians gain practical knowledge of their situation, in other words that all capitalist categories and class belonging itself is constituted as an exterior constraint to the struggle, and their asking of the question of communisation is made possible.

The self-organisation of struggles is a crucial moment of the revolutionary supersession of struggles over immediate demands. To carry on the struggle over immediate demands intransigently and to the very end cannot be achieved by unions, but by self-organisation and workers’ autonomy. To carry on the struggle over immediate demands through workers’ autonomy on the basis of irreconcilable interests is to effect a change of level in the social reality of the capitalist mode of production.35

TC are saying that nowadays the proletarians simply get fed up with self-organisation as soon as it is established, because when they look at themselves in the mirror, they see nothing but their own existence. However, they first need to see this reflection in order to knuckle down this existence and thereby to go beyond self-organisation.

There is a qualitative leap when the workers unite against their existence as wage labourers, when they integrate the destitute and smash market mechanisms; not when one strike ‘transforms’ itself into a ‘challenge‘ to power. The change is a rupture.36

[The proletarians can] fight against market relations, seize goods and the means of production while integrating into communal production those that wage-labour can’t integrate, make everything free, get rid of the factory framework as the origin of products, go beyond the division of labour, abolish all autonomous spheres (and in the first place the economy), dissolve their autonomy to integrate in non-market relations all the impoverished …; in this case, it is precisely their own previous existence and association as a class that they go beyond as well as (this is then a detail) their economic demands. The only way to fight against exchange and the dictatorship of value is by undertaking communisation.37

For TC, it is the class relation understood as exploitation which gives the proletariat its position as a capitalist category and at the same time delivers the key to the dissolution of the classes and the capitalist categories. With exploitation class struggle does not become one thing and the Marxian (economic) concepts something else. ‘It is the insufficiency of surplus-value in relation to accumulated capital which is at the heart of the crisis of exploitation.’38 The falling rate of profit does not trigger class struggle, as the ‘objectivists’ would have it. Nor is the opposite true, that class struggle triggers the falling rate of profit, as the ‘subjectivists’ would have it. ‘[T]he fall of the rate of profit is a contradiction between classes.’39

In 2003 the publishing collective Senonevero, where TC among others participate, took an initiative to try to bring together all the different groups sharing the perspective of revolution as communisation: the ‘communising current’. This on the basis of a mini platform and around the review project Meeting. A number of indivuals and groups swallowed the bait, however not those around Troploin Newsletter (Dauvé & co.) who give their explanation to this in the text ‘Communisation: a “Call” and an “Invitation”’. The work with Meeting is going on while this is being written, but it should probably be mentioned that a lot of the discussions have orbited around whether the platform in ‘Invitation’ is entirely perfect. In light of this you can probably say that there exists a communising current, where some are gathering around Meeting, but that it is not entirely easy to define. Either way, it is clear that we welcome this initiative.

Some last words on the first part
Let us finalise this first part of the issue by saying a few words about the texts. The issue begins with a number of texts, originally published as a debate between Théorie communiste and Aufheben in their respecive magazines. Through this debate we came in contact with the ideas of TC for the first time. Aufheben presents TC for their readers, partly in their own words, partly through a couple of translated texts. We have translated these texts, as well as the debate itself and a few other texts by TC. We hope that it will be sufficient to let the debate present itself. A few texts by TC follows and a couple of these texts have already been mentioned. We are especially happy to present an interview from the last summer with a leading member of TC. With this interview we got an opportunity to follow up the discussion with Aufheben, TC’s view on the debate, and to listen to what they have to say about the position of communist theory in class struggle. The text ‘A fair amount of killing’ treats the second, ongoing, war in Iraq in light of the global restructuring.

Concerning the translations, we might add that we have added a previously unpublished introduction to TCs reply to Aufheben, which was originally meant for the thirteenth issue of Aufheben. As to find some sort of middle-ground we translated the final reply from TC to Aufheben as a compilation of the text published in English (Aufheben 13) and the text published in French (TC 19). Thus, it is neither the text published in Aufheben nor the text published in Théorie communiste that is presented here in riff-raff. All for the sake of confusion. Aufheben readers might notice that there are four chapters of the text in our translation40 , while the English translation only comprises three. The four paragraphs in the text ‘Introduction to “A reply to Aufheben”’ refer to these four paragraphs. Furthermore, the interview with Roland Simon was transcribed into English by a comrade from a French audio recording.

The second part is a discussion on a text from the last issue, ‘Communism of attack and communism of withdrawal’ by Marcel. Marcel received two critical comments (one by Per Henriksson and the other by Björkhagengruppen from Stockholm), and Marcel wrote a reply. Henriksson argues, among other things, that Marcel misplaces the historical and logical relation between capitalism and communism, where the former is a precondition for the latter, and that Marcel’s perspective therefore becomes utopist.

Björkhagengruppen criticises Marcel on the basis of partly different conditions. For instance, they argue that Marcel did not do a proper reading of Hegel and thus fails to preserve a distinction between the concepts of essence and appearance. Furthermore, they develop an idea of a gap between labour power and living labour, arguing that this might be a possible way out of the relationship of capital.

Marcel states in his reply that he acknowledges the critique in the mentioned articles, but he also refers to a coming publication, aimed at clarification of his proposed theory. In line with his former text, the thought remains that the dialectics of capital entails class struggle but that it is not here the revolution can be found. This he presents as anti-dialectic: ‘Communism is non-appropriate, not appropriate, since it is the positive abolition of capital’s telos.’

Furthermore, we have recieved a text by Chris Wright, a North American comrade, who pursues the discussion on the relationship between objectivism–subjectivism and crisis–collapse on the basis of the text by Marramao in our last issue. He is not content with the solution of the problematic of objectivism–subjectivism which Marramao has to offer.

We find it very pleasant and positive that people like to take part in the discussion we have tried to conduct in and through riff-raff, that they have understood that we have never intended discussion in some sort of isolation. On top of that, the fact that they are both ambitious and constructive creates a feeling of acknowledgement amongst us; and the project which we devote our time to seems to have some relevance outside our group as well.

Marx–Engels series
We introduce in our eighth issue three seemingly disparate texts in our series of novel translations of Marx and Engels: the years 1844–1845, 1860 and 1877. The first one is a few passages from Marx’s and Engel’s jointly produced writing The holy family or Critique of critical criticism. Against Bruno Bauer and company. This book has never before been published in Swedish, either as a whole or (which is all too common) in the form of a commented selection. It was written about the same time as Marx’s now famous, as well as controversial, Economic and philosophical manuscripts of 1844, also called the Paris manuscripts (these were manuscripts and notes and the names by which they are now well-known are editorial titles by later publishers). We have not managed to translate the book in its whole and we have unfortunately been forced to limit ourselves to a few passages: the ‘Foreword’ and ‘Critical comment no 2’ from the fourth chapter, which among other things, deals with Proudhon. We publish the Foreword just to come a bit on the way towards a complete future translation (however date and translators for this project can not be promised at this time) – as for the content it does not say so much. The later part has on the other hand much more to offer (although it is very much moved out of its context). Here we find at least two passages that are usually found in the shower of Marx quotes. The shorter of the two is most likely already familiar and the substance is, a bit shortened, that the question is not what workers suspect or think at the coffee table, but rather what we are and what we have to become as a class. No more, no less. The former, a little longer part, deals with the very relationship between the proletariat and capital, where these are not to be understood as two external poles, two separate subjects or a subject and an object that stand against each other, but where these poles at the same time are each others opposites and preconditions. We do not continue the discussion here and now, since the immediate reason for the publication of this passage is the references to it in the discussion between Aufheben and TC.

Apart from this we publish two letters by Marx from two different time periods. Neither do we feel like writing anything about these other than that they contain interesting formulations which surely might suprise one or two Marx necrophiles. We find one in a comment on the dissolution of the Communist League where some words are spent on the party and in the historical way he always intended. In the second letter we find a tired Marx who shares his view on the idolising of his personality.

riff-raff, October 2006

  • 1We wish to approach the conceptual mess concerning the terms ultra-left, left and council communism right away and once and for all. The ultra-left is sometimes considered as all the currents to the left of the Bolsheviks, and sometimes more specifically as the current in Germany and Holland, and at other times the modern left with its origin in Socialisme ou Barbarie. Left communism (or the communist left) is often considered in general as those to the left of the Bolsheviks, but also more specifically considered as the Italian left. Council communism is the Dutch–German current, and sometimes the groups that appeared after the defeat of the German revolution, and is considered as one branch of left communism. Left communism can also to some extent be regardes as a hyperonym of council communism, and the former is here equivalent to the wider definition of the ultra-left (which is the term we usually use).
  • 2A term Lenin came up with in 1915 to stigmatise those in the 2nd International who supported their respective countries in WWI.
  • 3Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands
  • 4Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands
  • 5We would like to recommend an interesting text: Loren Goldner, ‘Communism is the material human community: Amadeo Bordiga today’. Published (in Swedish) in riff-raff № 3–4, 2003.
  • 6See Lenin’s pamphlet: Left-wing communism – an infantile disorder , and Herman Gorter’s Open letter to comrade Lenin.
  • 7See Anton Pannekoek: Lenin as a philosopher.
  • 8Théorie communiste, ‘Communist theory’
  • 9Théorie communiste, op. cit.
  • 10Théorie communiste, op. cit.
  • 11Théorie communiste, op. cit.
  • 12Théorie communiste, op. cit.
  • 13See ‘Love of labour’ by Dauvé and Nesic. Published (in Swedish) in riff-raff № 5, 2003. A printable English version can be found here: http://www.geocities.com/antagonism1/loveoflabour/lollollpaginated.pdf
  • 14Chapter 14 in the Swedish edition. Trans. note.
  • 15Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, Penguin, London, 1976, p. 645
  • 16Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Penguin, 1973, p. 458
  • 17‘Interview with Roland Simon’
  • 18Chris Arthur, ‘Dialectical development versus linear logic’, in The new dialectic and Marx’s Capital, Brill, Leiden/Boston/Köln 2002, p. 76
  • 19Karl Marx, op. cit., p. 278
  • 20Another common name in English is ‘Nine men’s morris’. To read a short description of the origins of the game and learn how to play, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nine_Men’s_Morris.
  • 21In the currently available English translations of texts by Théorie communiste the French term is not translated but left as it is, and in the Aufheben–TC debate the term ‘twin cogs’ is also used. Translators note.
  • 22Théorie communiste, ‘A reply to Aufheben’, p. 164
  • 23Théorie communiste, ‘Communist theory’
  • 24Théorie communiste, op. cit.
  • 25Théorie Communiste and Alcuni fautori della comunizzazione, ‘A fair amount of killing’
  • 26Théorie commmuniste, ‘Communist theory’
  • 27We have in this issue no text which in closer detail deals with the restructuring, however we recieved the tip of reading the pages 26–51 in the text ‘Proletariat et capital: une trop breve idylle?’, Théorie communiste № 19, 2004.
  • 28The law of value is intact, as well as for example the distinction between productive and improductive labour.
  • 29How is the class struggles fought when, for example, the difference between working and being unemployed becomes more and more rubbed off with the increasingly widespread flexibilisation?
  • 30See Théorie communiste № 2, p. 10 and № 20, pp. 71–72; pp. 78–79; p. 170; p. 190.
  • 31See Théorie communiste № 20, p. 54
  • 32Théorie communiste, ‘Self-organisation is the first act of the revolution; it then becomes an obstacle which the revolution has to overcome.’, Supplement to Théorie communiste no 20, 2006, pp. 34–44
  • 33Théorie communiste, op. cit., p. 14
  • 34Something which we adhere to.
  • 35Théorie communiste, op. cit., pp. 27–28
  • 36Théorie communiste, op. cit., p. 40
  • 37Théorie communiste, op. cit., p. 30
  • 38Théorie communiste, op. cit., p. 76
  • 39Théorie communiste, ‘Communist theory’
  • 40Due to the fact that TC had a paragraph on Dauvé that Aufheben decided not to publish.

Introduction to ‘A reply to Aufheben’ - A former member of Aufheben

A reply from a former member of Aufheben to Theorie Communiste. Previous entries in this debate can be found in Riff-Raff No. 8.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on July 3, 2011

An introduction to an introduction
It has been suggested that the following text – a draft for an introduction to TC’s response to what had appeared about them in Aufheben no 12 – requires some explanation.

Just as consciousness can be seen to exist between people rather than in people’s heads, theory exists socially in the active process of responding to the movement of reality and to previous theoritical attempts to grasp that movement, a response that invites another response and so on. Richard Gunn suggests that such practically reflexive theory is identical with ‘good conversation’: a play of recognition where each partner puts everything about themselves and their views at stake. The interaction between Aufheben and TC was an attempt at such ‘good conversation’. The following text was meant to close the published conversation for a while by introducing and commenting on TC’s most recent response but leave them with the last word for the time being.

The normal Aufheben practice would have involved this draft being collectively argued about, corrected, and the modifed version appearing in the magazine. Instead some involved in the project argued that their disagreement with the draft was such, that neither it nor the TC text should appear in the magazine. After some heated discussion a compromise was reached of publishing the TC with a non-committal introduction. After Aufheben no 13 came out the internal argument was taken up again. However, before the issues could be fully clarified, one part of the group decided they could no longer work with certain others, and that they must be asked to leave. There was an acrimonious split.

We can see that while mainly intended to be a part of a ‘conversation’ Aufheben was having with TC and with its readers about TC, the draft introduction was, at the same time, a move within a conversation that was occurring within Aufheben. What followed – the rejection of the draft, followed by the withdrawal of recognition from conversational partners – were extreme moves in dialogical terms. Such a termination of the discussion prevented further clarification at that time of the issues at stake either between TC and Aufheben or within Aufheben. Implicitly however these very moves were a recognition of the significance of of the argument. The identity of Aufheben itself was at risk and could be saved only by an end to the dialogue. It can be seen as a confirmation of Gunn’s observation that:

nothing is less polite than rigorous conversation pursued to its end. … no-one can say in advance where (into what issues of life-and-death struggle) good conversation may lead.1

However this means that the text before you remains a rough and unfinished draft. Apart from a general tidying up, the main section that could have done with more work is the fourth point on alienation. The main question is what is the relation of the use of the category of alienation in Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and that in the Grundrisse and The Missing 6th chapter? Some important secondary works on this question are chapters 2–3 of Simon Clarke’s Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology and Chris Arthur’s Dialectics of Labour. The latter writer has commented directly on TC’s arguments about alienation in a letter2 .

However, the acceptance in the draft of TC’s challenge to consider what lies behind the ‘marxological’ argument about alienation was a good move and one suspects part of what made it unacceptable to others in Aufheben. As one of us speculated in the subsequent internal discusion within Aufheben: ‘TC’s theory is stronger than their weaknesses in understanding of the Hegel–Marx connection and failure to grasp the continuity of the EPM and later Critique of Political Economy might otherwise suggest. How? Because despite their not wishing to take on the account of Marx’s relation to Hegel’s dialectic that he offers in the EPM, TC get their Hegel and their dialectics from another source: the Grundrisse. It seems to me that despite themselves – TC are in an important sense “Hegelian Marxists” who grasp the ontological dimensions of Marx’s critique. This is because they take the Grundrisse as their key text and thus themselves use concepts based fundamentally on alienation.’

Anyway, the conversation continues…

Introduction to ‘A reply to Aufheben’

Here we see the reason behind one particular complaint so often made against them: that so much has to be read over and over before it can be understood – a complaint whose burden is presumed to be quite outrageous, and, if justified, to admit of no defence.3

Oh no, not more TC!? [Aufheben reader]

We have now devoted considerable space, time and effort in the magazine and our own discussion, in grappling with the perspectives of the French group Theorie Communiste (TC). Yet we know some of our readers are not following us in this effort. A question is whether the difficulty of TC is to do with the importance of what they are saying – and perhaps the resistance it produces in the reader – or down to a lack of clarity in the way they express themselves? The answer is perhaps a bit of both.

As even their admirers will often admit TC’s writing style leaves something to be desired, there is a repetition and verbosity, endless self-reflective sentences which don’t seem to end and in which the subject and object is unclear.4 What more than one reader has said, is that TC could really do with is a good editor. TC keep coming back to to a number of key theoretical ideas: the old cycle of struggles – programmatism – and its abolition in the restructuring; the new cycle of struggles; the rejection of any revolutionary essence to the proletariat; refusal to see revolution as the overgrowth of present struggles. However, if that is put as a criticism, TC could always follow Voltaire in saying that they will repeat themselves as often as necessary until they are understood.

For ourselves we can say that we are finding the interaction with TC provocative and stimulating if also frustrating. The following text is an amalgamation of two letters in which TC take up what they identify as the four key points of dispute between us. Rather than a full on rejoinder to their points we opt here for a brief(ish) introduction to their points, allowing them for the time being the last word (in a sense).

First point
TC’s first point is based on the mistaken view that we had agreed with the critique of them made by Dauvé and Nesic in their text, To Work or not to work? Is that the question?5 Despite this, TC’s point is worth including for two reasons. One, in answering the criticisms of Dauve and Nesic, TC usefully clarify what they mean by their their concept of programmatism. Two, it usefully draws attention to the only substrantial critique of TC we are aware of. Dauvé alonside Camatte is in anglophone countries one of the best known figures6 from the communist scene or miliue that flowered in France around ‘68, that we have called the modern ultra left. Inspired by the developments in the class struggle and influenced by Socialism or Barbarism, the Situationist International and by the publication of Marx’s Grundrisse this scene made a non-dogmatic appropriation of the best ideas of council communism and Bordiga. TC’s claim is that their theory is the theoretical product – the right way of taking forward the thinking carried out by that scene.7 Dauve in his continuing writing and activity is a main representive of an alternative theoretical direction taken by those emerging from that milue,8 and of course that would not agree with TC’s opinion. Interestingly while situ types might in the past have accussed Dauve and his friends of determinism9 this is now exactly the charge that he is making against TC. This is a topic we may return to another time.

Second Point
The second point is a response to our question whether TC, ‘in not mourning the loss of workers identity miss the fact that perhaps the proletariat has to recognise itself and its situation to abolish itself?’10 TC’s answer is a clarification of how they understand the present cycle of struggles as different from programmatism, and a description, at a very abstract level, of what proletarian revolutionary move towards communism would involve.

Aufheben has occaisionally taken up of the idea, quite a commonplace on the left, that the difference between workers struggles now, and in the 60s and 70s is that between defensive and offensive struggles. For TC this underestimates the profoundity of the defeat of the old workers’ movement. There has not been simply a retreat of essentially the same kind of class struggle which could then re-emerge in much the same form.

For TC, both the leftist wait for a return of the old workers movement – of assertive unions and proper social democracy – and the ultra left watch for a return of the forms of self-organisation and proletarian autonomy, which it oppossed to those institutions, are hinged on a cycle of struggles which is past. The idea here that ‘Self-organisation and union power belonged to the same world of the revolution as affirmation of the class.’11 indicate why we have seen TC as possibly the right move ‘beyond the ultra left’. For the ultra left the class struggle in the form of proletarian autonomy and self-organisation is good (or at least potentially revolutionary) and unions are bad (or at least irredeemably counter-revolutionary) thus if they appear to be connected this is only because the latter repress, recuperate and hold back the former. But one knows that that in the period up to the 70s which TC call programmatism much of the wildcat strikes that the ‘ultra-left’ has been excited by were in actual fact led by rank and file shop stewards. Also one can observe that when workers did actually organise themselves against the official unions there has been a overwelming tendency either for the forms they have set up to become new unions or for them to drift back to acceptance of the official unions. When ultra leftists ackowledge this they generally try to understand it in terms of a tendency towards autonomy and proper revolution which has been defeated again and again. Revolutionaries are then given the role of transmitting the lessons of those defeats, so that next time the revolution won’t be betrayed by the wrong roads of union accomodation, or social democracy, or leninism or nationalism etc. TC thus undermine the identity of those who see themselves as champions of the good side of workers activity – autonomous, self-organised – against the bad one – incorporated, accepting of representation. They do this by seeing this opposition as part of a historical period, a period which may have certainly involved splits and conflicts but in which workers autonomy and union power were part of a continuum of workers struggles that shared in the same model of emancipation and revolution, one based on an an affirmation of the class.12

But what of the new cycle of struggles? It is worth noting here that what some people appreciate in their work, and what has not come out in our exchange, is actually the close attention they give to concrete struggles and how their abstract theory emerges out of that. TC mention two examples – Cellatex and Vilivoorde – which indicate for them the character of the new cycle of struggles. By giving some details of these struggles they mention we may get some idea of what they are getting at. Cellatax refers to a very militant response to the closure of a textile mill in Northern France in 2000. The workers occupied, briefly held officials hostage and threatened to blow up the plant which was full of poisionious and explosive chemicals. With banners reading ‘We’ll go all the way… boom boom.’ they demonstrated their seriousness to the media by setting off small explosions and tossing chemicals into large fires in front of the factory gates. In a move not endearing them to environmentalists, they released some chemicals into the river13 and threatened more. After this they were offerred and accepted a much more favourable redundancy package.14 Vilvoorde refers to how the workers in a Belgian factory responsed to Renault’s announcement of its closure in 1997. In what became known as the ‘eurostrike’ the workers occupied the plant, managed to prevent the hauling away of and thus held ‘hostage’ 4,500 new cars. They made guerilla or commando raids to spread action to French plants. They received a lot of solidarity action both from Renault workers in France and Spain and from other Belgian carworkers culminating in a giant demonstration called at short notice in Brussels. After this the French Prime Minister came on to television to announce a big increase in the payoff to the workers. In both cases then, despite their differences, we see imaginitive and in the Cellatax case violent protest at a plant closure and job losses which results in… closure and job losses plus a more extensive social plan for the workers. One might say that these examples show workers responding militantly to restructuring but also in a sense realistically in accepting in the end the best deal they think they can get. Now the extent to which these results become the standard for future restructuring and closures, is an important cost for capital, part of what bourgeois commentors bemoan as the inflexible European labour market, but we are hardly dealing with forward steps for labour. If leftists see in these actions a partial return of working class identity (trying to fit the Vilovoorde struggle into demand for and defence of a ‘Social Europe’ for instance) and ultra leftists may see the encouraging signs of return of workers autonomy, for TC what is apparent is the contrast to the struggles of the earlier cycle of programmatism, the way that a labour identity is not reproduced.15

However TC insist that they are not saying that in the old cycle the proletariat struggled to assert itself in capitalism, while now the proletariat has become a ‘purely negative being’ that only wants to abolish capital and itself. Rather their argument is that the proletariat, as ever, struggles for its immediate interests, but because that struggle can no longer be resolved in the confirmation and affirmation of a worker’s identity as a basis of further capitalist reproduction, the possibility of a revolutionary conclusion of this cycle of struggles is opened up. At that point they even say that the the notion of a ‘class for itself’, which our question pointed to, may become appropriate. But for them it would come about where the class recognioses its definition as a class as something imposed as an external constraint and overcomes it, a recognition which they they suggest would be the same as a practical knowledge of capital. This idea that the class struggle now poses itself at the level of the reproduction of classes – that revolution will be produced by this cycle of struggles – is of course one that we would like to be true even if we are not quite sure of how TC see this is emerging.

Third point
In their third point TC explain somewhat their periodisation of capitalism and in particular the basis on which they argue for a second phase of real subsumption starting in the 70s. As we previously said, our attitude here is not an out an out rejection of a periodisation based on formal and real subsumption. We recognise that the move to such a form of periodisation16 was (tremendously) theoretically productive for the French communist scene it influenced, as it also was for the autonomist Marxists who took it up at the same time. This periodisation had the advantage on alternative ways of grasping the period at that time17 in being properly rooted in Marx’s critique of political economy and his conception of capital as the autonomisation of value. Moreover we can see that TC’s introduction of a second stage of real subsumption goes some way to deal with what for us is the obvious weakness of such a periodisation: the inflexibility of the simple binary opposition – formal–real.

We can all agree that there have been some pretty profound changes since the 70s – a restructuring of industry involving massive defeats of sections of the working class, an increased globalisation especially of financial operations, the breakdown of the eastern bloc, the crisis of ‘third world’ attempts to follow the Russian statist model of modernisation that is of capital accumulation, the emptying out of social democratic forms such as the welfare state. Bourgeois commentators have described these changes with phrases such as Globalisation, the end of corporatism, of Keynesianism, rise of neo-liberalism, the ‘forward march of labour halted’ and of course the fall of communism.18 But we ask is TC’s new stage just a better description19 that is simply defined by the same phenomenal changes that the bourgeois use their terms to describe, or does their new stage really explain those changes by a dynamic principle properly grounded in the capital–labour relation?

TC do give some decent quotes indicating that there is some basis in Marx for the validity of developing what are for him conceptual categories of capital into a historical periodisation of capitalist society.20 Of course, as TC think the real subsumption of society hadn’t really occurred till after the old man’s death, ‘canonical Marxian references’ will not settle this matter. Indeed on the basis of fidelity to Marx it would be would be just as plausible to argue that the stages of capitalism he identifies are ‘simple cooperation’, ‘manufacturing’ and ‘large scale industry’. One might then want to add something like taylorism/fordism up to the seventies and perhaps some sort of neo-Fordism or crisis of Fordism since then.21 Of course we are not pushing the analysis of the regulation school22 as an alternative23 to TC. We can agree with them that the right approach is to make use of some of the theoretical arguments and empirical material gathered by theorists such as the Regulation School within a more class struggle focused and communist perspective.

Unsurprisingly, considering we are trying to understand the same reality, our tentative efforts to define the present period are not necessarily at complete variance to what TC are saying. For example TC, in their account of the change to the second phase of real subsumption, use an idea from Marx’s Capital,24 of the double moullinet or twin cogs of the cycles of reproduction of capital and of labour power which meet in the immediate production process. TC suggest that there are certain obstacles to the smooth intersection of these cogs, primarily imposed by the class struggle in the period of programmatism, which the restructuring overcomes and thus iniates a new phase. The freeing up of one cog – the free flow of capital – works to free the other cog – the smooth reproduction of an exploiotable labour power. There is a similarity here to the idea we have used of the intersection of finance and industrial capital where the increased mobility and power of global finance capital has allowed capital to escape the centres of working class strength, thus creating more favourable conditions for accumulation both in the new area of and in the old one. Similarily what TC are getting at with, what is for them the key idea, of the end of Programmatism was something we touched on to an extent by our articles on the retreat of social democracy.25 We are not of course saying that we have come up with the same ideas as TC nor that have a clear alternative to their stages. In terms of Social Democracy and the fate of the workers movement unlike with our tentative first approximation of a position, with TC there is no ambivalence (there is no question mark): programmatism has no future, it is irretriavibly past. So TC are more confident and definitive in their characterisation of the period meaning, even if they are wrong, they certainly have given us something to work on.

Another positive feature of TC’s stages is the way it appears to overcome the antinomy of the autonomist Marxist and objectivist Marxist approaches to the crisis. Rather than prioritise either the activity of the class as causing the crisis of capitalist accumulation, or seeing the crisis of capital accumulation as the cause of working class struggle, TC do seem to see capitalist devlopment as nothing but the development of the relation of exploitation. Thus we see TC incorporate a dynamic role of workers’ struggles in the development of the mode of production and its crises, without getting stuck in separation of the class as a separate subject from capital as happens in the the autonomist class struggle theory of the crisis.26

So we can then, see merit in TC’s periodisation, which they have gone some way to showing actually explain the period rather than just being descriptive. However while TC have clarified their picture they have not answered all our doubts. Athough they recognise that it is necessary to take up the question in a more empirical way, their account remains pretty abstract and to be convinced we would want both more empirical treatment but also to understand better the mediations between their – what to us are still somewhat abstract – schema and more empirical concrete history. Part of our problem is a certain skepticism with regards to the inevitable schematism of such a stages approach – where the concrete developments are presumed to be explained by referencing the stage of capitalism they fall under. Considering that this started as an exchange around in part the theory of decadaence, there is the curious formal similarity that just as in the theory of decadence this stage was meant to eliminate the possibility of any reformism, TC’s second phase of real subsumption is meant to eliminate all accomodation of the class within capitalist reproduction and make revolution, in its real sense as communisation, the necessary climax of this cycle of struggles.

However we can agree with them when they say that if for the sake of argument they were to accept our objections, what is essential and what needs to be discussed is the very content of what they are saying that there has been a ‘restructuring of the relation of exploitation, of the contradiction between proletariat and capital.’ That is to say, that even if TC’s stages are wrong they address head on the profoundity of what the crisis and restructuring of the 70s has involved.27

Fourth Point
TC’s final point concerns the status of the concept of alienation in Marx, something we devoted a lot of space to in our reply to TC and which they now take on seriously in response. As TC joke, we seem here to be in a competition in the domains of marxology and pedantry, but they end by suggesting what might really be at stake behind the ‘marxological’ argument: let’s cut to the chase.

This for TC is that the problematic of alienation is definitively a problematic of the revolutionary nature of the proletariat. They argue that despite the distance Aufheben sometimes manage from the more obviously ideological approaches of much of the ultra left, we ultimatley have not escaped its problematic. This is because we still ‘maintain an abstract vision of autonomy and self-organisation (the true being of the proletariat) in spite of its historical collapse’, and this is expressed in the way we deal with current struggles such as the Direct Action movement. TC contend that our analyses, despite a commendable concretesness, fall into an external judgement of the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ of these movements rather than raising ‘the questions of the “why” of these movements, of their “existence”, of what they contribute theoretically, of their existence as definition of a period.’ Of course what TC are essentially saying is that we don’t understand these struggles the way they do. But we can’t dismiss the argument, because TC are identifying a weakness in our approach that we are aware of ourselves. (What is a stake in a way is how can one be open to the real movement before our eyes.)

We certainly are not always content with what we manage to say about current struggles whether those of what TC term the ‘direct action movement’ or of more traditional social/class struggles. The fact that we generally manage to produce something better than what we read elsewhere, doesn’t actually say very much. Most political publications, at least those we come across in English, largely just filter what they read in the bourgeois media through their own ideology, or at best they may collect good information or describe things they have experience of, but still interpret it in terms of their already established categories. The idea of developing new categories or transforming existing ones from the experience of the class struggle is fairly alien to those for whom the answers are already known.

Something we have heard attributed to TC is the critique of ultra leftist or other revolutionaries that they go to struggles with a check list: e.g. was there an explicit break from the unions, did they set up strike assembly, did they attempt to overcome sectionalism by trying to spread the action and by making their struggle open to others, was there a break with bourgeois legality, have they set up workers councils etc. Struggles are marked from this check list according to a standard defined by previous revolutionatry upsurges which the revolutionaries are the memory of. We can recognise this rather sterile approach and would hope ourselves to avoid it. We try not to just fit struggles into pre-existing categories, or to criticise them ideologically or moralistically for not measuring up to an pre-established set of principles about what constitutes proper revolutionary struggle. We try to avoid cliched pat conclusions, to be open to novel features and the contradictions in developments. (But when we have a perception of communism that is not shared by most participants in the struggles we might be involved in or write about it is hard for this not to sometimes come across as an external weighing of the pros and cons of these struggles.) Anyway we are well aware that we don’t always come up with anything that cutting.28 TC suggest that it is possible to do better and we recognise that it is.

Whether TC achieve this would have to be tested in comparing the way they and ourselves treat the same concrete struggles. It would be interesting say, to read their more developed criticism of our analysis of the anti-capitalist movement, which appears as part of their own analysis in ‘Apres Gênes’ (‘After Genoa’) in Théorie Communiste no 18. Thus as more of TC’s work is translated, as we imagine it will, the situation will become clearer. Will we be persuaded by their categories – by their analysis of the Radical Democratism and the Direct Action movement, and of specific situations such as the Middle East or will we find that TC are also, like some of the approaches they criticise, forcing concrete struggles into already established abstract categories. Still, even if there is an element of the latter, it does seem that the working out of these categories has been through a genuine enagement with what has been happening in the last thirty years.

But after accepting that the ad hominem denounment at the end of TC’s fourth point does hit the target somewhat, we do have problems with the earlier plot developments. We are not persuaded that the weakness of some of our analyses are a result of the problematic of alienation which is in turn bound to the problematic of the revolutionary nature of the proletariat. Now confronted by TC we will accept that the proletariat does not have a revolutionary essence in itself and that it is only revolutionary as part of the development of the capital–labour contradiction.29 It’s just that we would say that that contradictory social relation is one of alienation.

If one looks at TC’s main argument on this point one must admit that it is coherent and well constructed. For the moment we are not going to come back at them on this level in which we agree they have distinguished themselves. Let’s just note that a tremendous weight falls on the assertion that there is in Marx a change in problematic from a humanism centred on man and his alienation to anti-humanism focused on social relations. For us this problematic of the problematics is problematic. It strikes us like other aspects of TC as overly schematic. There are of course breaks in Marx but there is continuity as well as discontinuity between his writings either side of these breaks.30 We accept that much understanding of alienation falls into problems. Our argument would be that the correct understanding of it would grasp it as at the foundation of the later critique of political economy. Yet of course TC argue we ourselves fall into problems say with our Bloch inspired idea of the humanity that is not yet. For the moment lets leave it there.

  • 1Richard Gunn, ‘Marxism and philosophy, Capital and Class no 37, 1989, p. 105
  • 2Available on the Aufheben site.
  • 3Hegel, Preface to Phenomenology of the Spirit
  • 4Though TC are quite anti-Hegeliean, these are exactly the points that Hegel thought made his writing necessarily difficult.
  • 5Available at
  • 6This is particularly through on-going popularity of the texts published in english as Eclipse and Re-emergence of the Communist Movement. ‘Eclipse…’ consists of revised versions of texts which originally appeared in the journal Mouvement Communiste {1969–1973) (Not the same as the Mouvement communiste publishing today).
  • 7TC have recently collected the texts Rupture dans la théorie de la Révolution (‘Rupture in the theory of revolution’) 1965–1975 with an introiduction that sees themselves as the continuation.
  • 8We quote how TC characterise the other tendency of the modern ultra left in footnote 25 on p 44 of Aufheben 12.
  • 9One thinks for example of the lines by his collaborator François Martin: ‘The activity of the working class does not proceed from experiences and has no other “memory” than the general conditions of capital which compell it to act according to its nature. It does not study its experiences; the failure of a movement is itself an adequate demonstration of its limitations.’ From ‘The class struggle and its most characteristic aspects in recent years’ in Eclipse and Re-emergence of the Communist movement, p 53.
  • 10Aufheben no 12, p. 40
  • 11One might say that their claim is unsettling and scandelous only to those who have defined themselves on the distinction and the identity it gives them as champions of the good side of workers activity – autonomous, self-organised – against the bad one – incorporated, accepting of representation.
  • 12‘Self-organisation and autonomy are not constants whose reappearance we could wait for, rather they constitute a cycle of struggles which is finished; for there to be self-organisation and autonomy, it is necessary to be able to assert yourself as the productive class in opposition to capital.’
  • 13Firefighters managed to contain the release.
  • 14Moulinas and Celltax was one of a number of very militant responses by workers in france to plant closures. For an account in English see – From Cellatex to Moulinex: Burst Up of an Open Social Violence by Henri Simon . For more on cellatax in particular see The Cellatex chemical plant occupation .
  • 15One might say that these struggles demonstrate TC’s case better than other ones, for example strikes in transport – say on the British tube or Italian buses, or in the British post office perhaps have more continuity with the strikes of ‘programmatism’ – of course these are precisely areas where restructuring has not been so intense because in part it is not possible to move production elsewhere.
  • 16It was suggested, as far as we know first by Camatte and Invariance.
  • 17Contemporary alternatives were Baran and Sweezy’s ‘monopoly capitalism’, Stalinism’s ‘state monopoly capitalism’, Socialism or Barbarism’s ‘bureacratic capitalism’, or indeed the idea of a universal state capitalism in the epoch of decadance that which would be championed by the more fundamentalist sections of the ultra-left. All of these emphasised some move away from the principles of Marx’s critique – usually by emphasising the role of the state. Real subsumption on the contary suggests the subordination of the state to capital also expressed sometimes as society no longer being bourgeois so much as capitalist. (Many of the alternative ways of periodising suggest some sort of peculiar developement of capitalism while in the idea of real subsumption society is recognised as not less but more profoundly capitalist than the ‘classic capitalism’ of the nineteenth century.)
  • 18As TC put it there has been a comprehensive defeat – a defeat of ‘workers’ identity, the communist parties, syndicalism, self-management, self-organisation, the refusal of work. It is a whole cycle of struggles which has been defeated, in every aspect; restructuring is essentially counter-revolution, one which can’t be measured by the number of deaths.’
  • 19Is TC’s reference to a second stage of real subsumpotiuonn an explanation of these empirical changes at a deeper level or could one really just call it the stage – 1890–1975 and 1975 – with no loss of power? (Are they just doing a Kant by drawing a stage out of their stage bag with the implication they could draw another as and when necessary?)
  • 20TC say ‘We can’t amalgamate or put on the same level absolute surplus-value and formal subsumption, or relative surplus-value and real subsumption. That is to say we can’t confuse a conceptual determination of capital and a historical configuration’ i.e. they see surplus value and relative surplus value as conceptual categories and formal and real subsumption as historical; we don’t think this is justified in Marx, but we accept that whether Marx used the categories in the way TC do does not in itself prove that they are wrong.
  • 21Dauvé and Nesic go for a periodisation like this in Whither the World, a text that unsurprisingly TC have subjected to critique.
  • 22For a good critique see Ferruccio Gambino, ‘A Critique of the Fordism of the regulation School’, Common Sense and reprinted in Revolutionary Writing, ed Bonefeld.
  • 23It is noticeable that whatever the basis of the stages most stages involve one started aroung the first world war or a bit before the first world war and ending in the 70s.
  • 24Unfortunately the English translation of Capital loses this level of meaning which TC use to conceive the basis of a change within real subsumption by not attempting to get across the metaphor in the German original.
  • 25‘Social Democracy: No Future?’ in Aufheben no 7 and ‘Re-imposition of Work in Britain and the “Social Europe”’ in Aufheben no 8
  • 26In another text they write: ‘to make of the proletariat the subject putting capital into crisis is necessarily to presuppose its existence outside the relation and it is thus necessary to define the terms of the relation outside of their connection. Thus to say that the crisis of capital constrains the proletariat to act, or to say that the proletariat puts capital into crisis, comes back to the same problematic. We presuppose the definition of the terms before their connection, for the proletariat we pose its activity in the crisis of capital, as the realisation of a possibility that it has in itself before the crisis, since it produced it.’
  • 27That is they address the profound defeat of ‘workers’ identity, the communist parties, syndicalism, self-management, self-organisation, the refusal of work. It is a whole cycle of struggles which has been defeated, in every aspect; restructuring is essentially counter-revolution, one which can’t be measured by the number of deaths.’
  • 28We simply is just the best we can come up within the constraints of our production process, who’s willing to write, how much time we have considering our self-imposed deadline of yearly publication etc.
  • 29Thus ‘class’ is revolutionary as this relation not as a quality inhering in constituted classes.
  • 30Just as there is continuity as well as discontinuity between the class struggle before and after the 70s.


10 years 10 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

do someone know what is this direct action movement? to what actual struggle does it refers?

anyway it is an interesting text, a pretty accurate description I think of the strenght and weakness in Théorie Communiste and can be useful as a kind of brief introduction to TC.

Interview with Roland Simon

An interview with Roland Simon of Théorie communiste. Appeared in riff-raff no. 8.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on March 6, 2012

This interview took place in Poznan, Poland on August 18, 2005 and was made in French with the help by English interpretors.

RR: Roland, you are involved in the group Théorie Communiste in France which has existed since the early 1970s. Could you tell us in short what were the main reasons for creating the group at that time, and how it has, in general, developed over the years?

RS: This question is best answered in the text ‘Théorie Communiste: Background and Perspective’ that has been published in Aufheben 11. There is no point in repeating what was said in that text except to specify the moment the problematic of TC became centred on the question of the restructuring, that is to say: a period of capital which comes to a close, a cycle of struggles which terminates, and another relation between the classes which is put in place. That appeared in 1979 in no. 3 of TC where we immediately confronted the difficulty of trying to define the restructuring; we went through several approaches, several different sorts of definition.

The first approach was too centred on the process of labour exclusively. This was at the end of the 70s when computerisation and automation were being introduced into the labour process. We thus focussed a lot on this transformation, and we defined the restructuring as an appropriation of the social power of labour1 in fixed capital, i.e. the division of labour, cooperation. We went on to speak of the restructuring, in a rather formalistic manner, as the process of valorisation which traverses the entirety of its own conditions. We were thus getting at something which increasingly enveloped the entirety of the process of reproduction. In particular we insisted on the transformation of modalities of the reproduction of labour power and the relation between the process of production and the market. The difficulty that we faced there was that we saw the danger of dissolving the specificity of productive labour and of confounding everything. We were on the verge of heresy…

Now we finally arrived at the definition of the restructuring as the abolition of everything which could present an obstacle to the self-presupposition of capital, to its fluidity. With this approach we conserved a specificity to the process of reproduction of productive labour whilst at the same time conserving a vision of the transformation of the entire process of reproduction. I’m not going to do an exposition of the restructuring now, but that implies, for example, the dissolution, by way of flexiblisation, of the opposition between work and being unemployment; in relation to the market there is the theory of flux; there is the disappearance of the separation of accumulation into national areas, the end of the distinction between the centre and the periphery, the disappearance of the Eastern block.

So the principle consequence of this restructuring is the overcoming of the contradiction which had characterised the entire previous cycle. That is to say the contradiction between on the one hand a labour power which is created, reproduced and put to work by capital in a more and more socialised and collectivised manner. And at the same time the form of appropriation by capital of this social/collective labour power which at a certain point appears as limited. For example, it appears as an obstacle at the level of the labour process in the problems which arise from the production line, and at the level of reproduction in the crisis of welfare. Thus Capital has created a social labour power which has become an obstacle to valorisation. That is to say that because the forms of this social power become rigid (this could be the forms of resistance on the line, the problems of welfare) the socialised reproduction of labour power by capital at a certain point becomes an obstacle to its valorisation. In the previous cycle of struggle, this antagonistic situation manifested itself as a workers’ identity which was the foundation of all the determinations of the previous cycle. A workers’ identity which was moreover confirmed by the reproduction of capital in the hiatus that existed between this social force created by capital and the forms through which it appropriated it. It was this situation that the restructuring abolished.

RR: Are there any other theoretical traditions – apart from the Dutch–German left – that you have found inspiration from, like operaismo/autonomist Marxism or perhaps Regulation School? And what use could be found (or not found) in Bordiga and the Italian left?

RS: The principle affiliation of TC is the Dutch–German left. To refer back to the first question the people who founded TC came out of a council communist tradition. We explained in TC no. 14 our relation to the ultra-left and I can give the definition of the ultra-left that we formulated:

We can call the ultra-left all practise, organisation and theory which poses the revolution as the affirmation of the proletariat. Whilst considering this affirmation as a critique and negation of everything which define the proletariat in its implication with capital and the state, which are only seen as integrating mediations. In this sense the ultra-left is a contradiction in process. Why? Because the revolution must confront the very strength of the class as a class of the capitalist mode of production. By way of an illustration: this is the tragedy of the German revolution. Because on the one hand this affirmation finds in its strength its own justification and its raison d’être. On the other hand, it is the same being in capital which, being for capital, must demand its autonomy, become a being for itself. This is the extreme point where we can almost find the possibility of formulating the revolution as a self-negation of the proletariat. But on its own basis it cannot go further. It’s like Moses before the promised land.

As far as the Italian left goes, this point of being able to almost see the revolution as the disappearance of classes is something that is very important in the German–Dutch left but which hardly exists in the Italian left – only in the very marginal texts which remain more or less clandestine. Their approach is incapable of arriving at that point.

Operaismo. We have sometimes taken over certain formulations used by operaismo like, for example, the central figure of the worker and class composition. But we use them as evocative images and not as strict theoretical categories. Before TC, at the beginning of the 70s, we had a journal which was called Communist Intervention and one of the first things we wrote was a critique of the concept of the political wage. Which is to say that I think that Operaismo has never actually gone beyond its own roots in the Italian left [mainstream left e.g. communist party, CGT, Roland’s note]. In a polemic way we could define operaismo as a radical syndicalism which is hoping for a political miracle. I think that what the ‘de-objectification’ they attempted was nothing but a change of the point of view. It’s not because we change the side which we view of something that the thing changes. In relation to the reciprocal implication of the proletariat and capital, they never saw that implication as a totality. For them it always remained an interaction.

In relation to the Regulation School. Here too we take certain expressions and even certain analyses, for example, Fordism, the crisis of Fordism. But even if we take up the expression ‘Fordism’, we are opposed to the idea of the distribution/sharing of productivity gains. It’s not a sharing of productivity gains but a transformation in the value of labour power, the value of labour too is defined historically and the transformations of capital in turn transforms this historical character of value. In regulationism there is a methodological trap: a principle of the comprehension of reality which is constructed ex-poste is transformed into a principle ex-ante. Regulationism doesn’t limit itself to a principle of interpretation of the economic processes; but this coherence, which is a principle of comprehension, is imparted to the capitalist mode of production as an intrinsic reality. This critique of the Regulation School wouldn’t be very interesting if it remained merely a critique, but we see in contemporary theoretical expressions the reproduction of this trap. Instead of seeing the restructuring as really existing capitalism, and seeing this as what constitutes it as a system, the error is to search in the definition of the restructuring for the best coherence possible (between the economic processes). To be blunt I think this is the error of Dauvé when he takes up the question of the restructuring.

The other important influence for us was the Situationist International. They were among the first to be able to speak of revolution as the abolition of all classes. But they did so in a whole series of contradictions. Firstly in speaking at the same time of workers councils, and also in searching for a way out through the discourse of the suppression and realisation of art. I think the SI led programmatism to its point of explosion. For example in the double definition the situationists gave of the proletariat: they saw themselves as very ‘old workers’ movement’ and were even proud to claim this heritage, but at the same time they gave an alternative aspect of the definition of the proletariat as all those who have no control over their life and who know it. And with the theory of the proletariat and its representation, that allows them to place, in the category of representation, everything which could be the existence of the class within capital, and in this way creating a sort of internal contradiction within the proletariat explaining it can overcome itself as a class. It’s the furthest possible point which could be arrived at within the programmatism of the IS. This point of explosion is demonstrated in the impossibility for Debord to tie together his theory of the spectacle. He is always trying to say that the spectacle is not a mask, it’s not an illusion, it is reality. But at that point, from where can the overcoming (the revolution) arrive? In my opinion it is this problem with which Debord is struggling throughout The Society of the Spectacle. Because within the theory of the spectacle in the SI, there is a theory which we can call vulgar, the theory of the illusion. It is the approach represented by Vaneigem, Theo Frey and Jean Garneau, and its not the theory of the spectacle which we find in Debord’s book. It’s his whole problem: Debord doesn’t want to make the spectacle into a mask or an illusion. But in fact the theory with which the SI practically functioned was the vulgar theory.

And in relation to the Italian Left… As I said, we didn’t take all that much. It’s critique of the German left, of course; the critique of revolution as self-management, and its insistence on the content of the revolution as the abolition of value, and of wage-labour. But it’s a critique which remains Leninist in the sense that one will continue to speak of state planning, and of a period of transition. Another important thing is the critique of democracy. But it is a critique which remains formal and even abstract, that is to say it critiques the citizen merely as a form, founded on the existence of value and the commodity – it doesn’t go to the point of fetishism of capital itself. Because in the fetishism of capital, this individual of exchange, of value, of the commodity, which is the democratic individual, this fetishism is taken up in the fetishism of the elements of the process of production, for this is the fetishism of capital itself, which explains how we can rediscover within democracy, within the functioning of democracy, under these fetishised forms, the class.

The other point of the Italian left would be the critique of anti-fascism, but we also find that in the German left, and almost in the same way.

After that, the theorists that for us are important:

Lukács… in the theory of reification which we use sometimes to define the self-presupposition of capital, there is a relation between the two concepts.

Korsch… above all when he loses track and makes blunders, it is there where he is most interesting – for example in the Theses on Marxism. Because there, like some other theorists he sees the limits, the impasse of programmatism, but at that point he is on the verging of abandoning any theory of class.

And there is Mattick… in his economic texts. Otherwise, in his political texts, he remains at the most classic level of the ultra-left. But his economic texts are essential, above all his critique of Rosa Luxemburg’s Accumulation of Capital: where he argues that the crisis is the tendency of the profit to fall – it is not a question of markets; it’s not a question of realisation.

And finally, with a lot of precautions… Althusser in his critique of Hegelian Marxism, and his critique of humanism. I think that there Althusser, Balibar and sometimes Rancière, are essential. It’s not for all that that we are going to take up his theory of the epistemological break, or treat Marxism as a science. But there is a lot to be learnt in the critique of humanism.

RR: How do you see the relation between on the one hand ‘revolutionaries’ / theoretical groups, such as your own, and on the other hand the working class and its struggles?

RS: We think class struggle is necessarily theoretical. Every struggle produces theory. Of course we have to distinguish between theory in the grand sense which I employ there and theory in the restricted sense which is the product of a few people in a group somewhere. In the grand sense the point is that the proletariat is always conscious of what it does, and if I call this consciousness theoretical it is because it can not be a self-consciousness. And this consciousness always passes by a knowledge of capital, by the mediation of capital. It is because it passes through another that I can not call it a self-consciousness, why I call it theoretical consciousness. This theoretical consciousness which exists in the global movement of the opposition to capital ends up in the reproduction of capital. And it’s at that moment that theory in a restricted sense is articulated. This restricted theory becomes the critique of the fact that the consciousness of the opposition ends up in the reproduction, in the self-presupposition of capital. In this sense theoretical production, in all its diversities and divergences, is as much a part of the class struggle as any other activity which constitutes the class struggle. At that point, the question ‘What is to be Done?’ is completely emptied of meaning; we no longer search to intervene in struggles as theoreticians or as militants with a constituted theory. That signifies that when we are personally implicated in a conflict, we operate at the same level as everyone else; and although we don’t forget what we do elsewhere, the way in which we do not forget this is in recognising that the struggle in which we find ourselves is itself reworking, reformulating and producing theory. I think that it’s in this way that we can be in a struggle without forgetting what we do elsewhere: capable of seeing the struggle itself as what produces theory. That is to say, theory can never be pre-existent as a project or as a finished understanding. For example, during the strikes of 2003 I was quite prominently involved in a strike-committee in the place where I worked. And this gave me the opportunity to see how all the positions of citezenism and radical democratism were a necessary form the struggle took, and it is only in understanding this necessity that one can criticise them, and not simply opposing them as simply false.

To come back to the previous point: What I mean by the fact that the proletariat is not an immediate self-consciousness – that it doesn’t know itself simply on its own basis but only in and through the mediation of capital – we could say the same thing of the bourgeoisie. The difference is that capital subsumes labour and not the other way around, which means that in this opposition the self-consciousness of the bourgeoisie can really become a self-consciousness because it has integrated the other into its own pole, which could never arrive, which is not the case with the proletariat.

RR: In the discussions between Aufheben and TC one can see that your historical periodisation of capitalism, on the basis of the concepts of formal/real domination of labour by capital – especially the idea of a second phase of real subsumption – seems to have been an obstacle. Can you in short explain on what grounds you divide up the different phases, and also what continuities and differences there are between yours and Marx’ usage of this terminology?

RS: There are three points in this question. The first is the question of periodisation. The second is why this periodisation has become an obstacle in the relation with Aufheben. The third point is the question of the relation with the canonical texts of Marx and the definitions of formal and real subsumption.

1. For the question of periodisation I can point you towards the discussion with Aufheben where the restructuring, the changes, why they took place is gone into. And equally I can point back towards my response to the first question where I explained how the restructuring was first defined and the difficulties we had in defining it.

2. The question of periodisation was not an obstacle; it was even the central point of the discussion in the relation with Aufheben. What I think happened with Aufheben was that the central point of periodisation hid another point and it’s that which became the obstacle. This hidden point, this other point, was the definition of the current cycle of struggles, of autonomy, of self-organisation and that was what really was at stake. Admitting that the periodisation we proposed put into question these political points, and not simply some theoretical, general and abstract questions on the periodisation of capital. It equally put into question a certain conception of the revolution as a subject returning to itself, a certain humanist conception of the revolution. It became an obstacle because the question of periodisation, placed on the table all the questions of autonomy, the subject of returning to itself, self-organisation and it’s that which finally revealed itself in the last exchanges with Aufheben and that’s where the discussion actually founded.

3. It seems to me that in the discussions of real subsumption in Marx there is constantly an ambiguity. Real subsumption is based on the theory of the relative mode of extraction of surplus-value. Thus in the development of machinery, in the augmentation of productivity. At the same time, relative surplus-value can only exist if the commodities which enter into the reproduction of labour power are themselves produced in a capitalist manner. So in that sense real subsumption can not be defined simply on the basis of the transformation of the process of production. In that sense that the notion of real subsumption implies that which I call (its not an excellent formulation) a capitalist society; which means the integration of the reproduction of labour in the cycle of capital itself and even the transformation of the capital–labour conflict as the dynamic of capital. And that was not given historically with the appearance of the machine, and therefore it seems there is a whole ambiguity in the definition of real subsumption in the texts of Marx. Marx was of his epoch, the fact that he had already sensed this ambiguity is in itself extraordinary, but we can’t ask for more. La plus belle fille ne peut donner que ce qu’elle a2

RR: For this summer camp you have prepared a text for a workshop, ‘Communisation vs. self-organisation’. Can you tell us a little about this text3 and what you hope will come out of the discussions from the workshop?

RS: This text is something a little new in the problematic of Théorie communiste. In this text, through these discussions here, Théorie communiste is in the process of becoming a little optimistic. That is to say, until very recently, we considered that what can be defined as the dynamic of this cycle of struggles – that the proletariat places itself into question in its relation to capital – was completely confounded with the question of acting as a class which is the limit of this cycle of struggles. So we saw the concept of limit and of dynamic as almost identical in our vision of struggles until now. In this text there appears a disjunction between the concept of limit and of dynamic. It is developed in the several examples under the title of ‘rupture prefigured’:

This rupture announces itself in the multiplication of the disjunction within the class struggle. To act as a class, to struggle as a class is the contemporary limit of class struggle, but this action is, on the one hand, the reproduction of capital and the struggles of the wage within the categories of capital and on the other hand it is the bringing into question by the proletariat of its own existence as a class within its contradiction with capital. This separation between these two sides is the separation between the limit and the dynamic.4

RR: The last question is about the relation between your group and Gilles Dauvé. In 2004 we published a book with Swedish translations of various texts by Dauvé, including ‘Capitalism and Communism’, ‘Leninism and the Ultra-left’ and ‘When Insurrections Die’. Before that we had also translated the text ‘To Work or Not to Work? Is that the Question?’ which is an implied critique of TC. And in the latest issue of our magazine we published a correspondence between members of our editorial board and Dauvé that circulated a lot around TC. Now we think that it is no more than fair to ask what is your view on the disagreements between your group and Dauvé?

RS: Firstly, if we dispute so much with Dauvé it’s because we have already so much in common, for example the term communisation, and the desire to arrive at a synthetic understanding of the period, posing the question of the relation between transformation of capital and the class struggle, etc. It is because we both have an approach which I would term theoretical that we can quarrel so much. Having said that, the principle divergence with Dauvé is his conception of the invariance of communism as an aspiration to the human community. I think this conception of Dauvé’s, the invariant aspiration to the human community, is in fact what I would call the worker’s revolution with a human face of the period from end of the 60s to the beginning of the 70s. It’s a vision which corresponds to a specific historical period which Dauvé takes for an invariant communism. Linked to this problematic is the question of determinism and the question of the revolution as a free activity. For example when Dauvé says if communism is taking our lives into our own hands, what would be the worth of a revolution to which we are pushed in spite of ourselves? It is this kind of phrase which for me has no sense, and which is linked to the problematic of communism as a more or less eternal aspiration to the human community, because if I am pushed as a proletarian, I am not pushed in spite of myself. It is from this fundamental point that all the other divergences between TC and Dauvé descend, because from the moment where we define in this was the aspiration to communism, the periodisation of the capitalist mode of production has no meaning. So we can say at the moment capital is the same as it was in 1860, which is what Dauvé says, which is in my view totally true but totally useless, because from that point all periodisation of capital becomes a simple affair of conjunctions of given moments and any attempts to periodise capital are therefore condemned as determinist.

Another consequence of this vision of communism, which is in fact that of the end of the 60s to the beginning of the 70s, is the impossibility of understanding capital beyond Fordism. Thus, as I said in relation to the Regulation School, the impossibility of seeing the really existing restructuring as being the restructuring. There is no model of the restructuring. As TC have abandoned all theories of communism as the revolutionary nature of the proletariat or as a human aspiration to community, it’s only to TC that one asks ‘how can it happen?’. It seems that all the other theoretical productions are excused from responding to this question. We don’t ask them because whether they believe in a revolutionary nature, or an aspiration to the human community or a form like self-organisation which one day or another will prove triumphant, they already have the solution, and are thus excused from responding to the question ‘how can it happen?’ Because in their revolutionary nature, or their aspiration to the human community, or in their grand historical arc of alienation, in their very formulation they have already given their answer. It is because TC haven’t already placed the answer within the question that we can actually ask our selves this question, and that whatever response we give we will always be accused of determinism, because we take account of history. Thus in suppressing all of those formulations we have made life difficult for ourselves, because we no longer have anything but exploittation as the contradiction between the proletariat and capital, their reciprocal implication, and the history of capital as the history of this contradiction. And it’s only with that that we can work.

Thus there can be no more normative attitude in relation to the revolution. Communism and revolution are historical productions. When you have a normative attitude, you can say, in relation to the process of class struggle, that something is lacking here or there – all the ‘they should have done this’ or ‘they didn’t do that’ that you get in ‘When Insurrections Die’. Which means that you know what the revolution has to be. And what you know the revolution has to be is applicable to any epoch. You will say that the insurgents of June 1848 failed to do such and such, the German workers in 1919/1920 should have done this or that, and if you attempt to understand what they did in the conditions in which they did it, in itself and for-itself, you are immediately accused of determinism. At that point the problem of determinism seems to be resolved, because we have done everything to prevent the problem of history being posed. Which is to say that becoming, that history itself, is eliminated. And in my opinion it is at that point that one arrives at a position that is truly deterministic. Because we wait for nothing but the arrival of a coincidence. All determinism is placed in the revolutionary essence of the proletariat, and history is from then on only there to show from time to time a disjunction between the reality, of a moment or a movement, and the model. Now of course one can give, as Dauvé and Nesic do, lots of examples, but what is remarkable when one reads e.g. ‘To Work or not to Work’, is that those examples are clearly in a chronological order, but that if they were in any other order it would change absolutely nothing in the demonstration.

Just to finish on this question, there is also a big misunderstanding about the way we present the possibility of communisation: when we say ‘now the revolution presents itself in this way’ we are certainly not saying ‘finally it presents itself in the way it always should have’, nor are we saying that capital has resolved the problems of the proletarians in their place, because in order to imagine that it would be necessary for those problems to have pre-existed the restructuring and determined the previous period. But e.g. the problem of the impossibility of programmatism posed by the last restructuring was not a problem during the period of programmatism itself, where it was the very course of the revolution, and if capital has resolved the problem of programmatism it should not be forgotten that this happened in a restructuring, that is to say in a counter-revolution, the resolution was produced against the proletarians, and not as a gift from capital. And today the problematic of revolution as communisation raises problems just as redoubtable as those of programmatism, because when it is action as a class which becomes the very limit of class struggle, and you can only make the revolution in and through that action, you have some god-awful problems.

  • 1‘social power of labour’ and ‘social labour power’ are terms which occur in the French edition of Capital (chapter 13, just before footnote 13) but are translated in the English as ‘social productive power of labour’ and ‘the productive power of social labour’. I imagine the French is closer to the original German so I have used ‘social labour power’ throughout. Translators note.
  • 2‘The most beautiful girl can only give what she has.’ Ed. note.
  • 3Théorie communiste, Self-organisation is the first act of the revolution; it then becomes an obstacle which the revolution has to overcome., Supplement to Théorie communiste no 20, 2006
  • 4Op. cit., p. 42