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