Intakes: Communist Theory - Beyond the Ultra-left

Aufheben present Theorie Communiste's reply and critique of their series of articles on decadence.

Submitted by libcom on December 13, 2005

Last century (a few years ago), the French group Théorie Communiste (TC) translated and published our articles on 'decadence' (Aufheben issues 2 - 4), accompanied by a critique. We publish that critique here, plus a short presentation by TC on their theoretical positions. TC write in quite a difficult style but they deal with important issues. While we are not in full agreement with either TC's overall perspective or all their criticisms of our text, we find what they are saying challenging. If they are on the right track then they have moved beyond the impasse of revolutionary theory as represented by the 'ultra-left'. We are working on a response to be published in the next issue of Aufheben, but have found we need to translate more of their texts to understand their perspective more clearly. As some of the political tendencies that TC allude to will be quite obscure to many non-French readers, for this issue we have written an introduction to their introduction of themselves, with some thoughts about the relation between communism, the workers movement and the ultra-left, and the French debates on this from which TC emerge.

Introduction: The workers' movement, communism and the ultra-left

At the beginning of the '70s it appeared to a whole tendency already critical of the historic ultra-left that the ultra-left's calling into question all the political and union mediations which give form to the proletariat's belonging, as a class, to the capitalist mode of production is far from being enough...

The central theoretical question thus becomes: how can the proletariat, acting strictly as a class of this mode of production, in its contradiction with capital within the capitalist mode of production, abolish classes, and therefore itself, that is to say: produce communism?

-Théorie Communiste


Communism is the self-abolition of the proletariat, which is to say, of the capitalist mode of production, because capital is a social relation with the proletariat as one of its poles. This was fundamental to Marx's contribution to communist theory, something he expresses rather well in the following passage of The Holy Family:

Proletariat and wealth are opposites; as such they form a single whole. They are both creations of the world of private property. The question is exactly what place each occupies in the antithesis. It is not sufficient to declare them two sides of a single whole.

Private property as private property, as wealth, is compelled to maintain itself, and thereby its opposite, the proletariat, in existence. That is the positive side of the antithesis, self-satisfied private property.

The proletariat, on the contrary, is compelled as proletariat to abolish itself and thereby its opposite, private property, which determines its existence, and which makes it proletariat. It is the negative side of the antithesis, its restlessness within its very self, dissolved and self-dissolving private property.

The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-estrangement. But the former class feels at ease and strengthened in this self-estrangement, it recognises estrangement as its own power and has in it the semblance of a human existence. The class of the proletariat feels annihilated in estrangement; it sees in it its own powerlessness and the reality of an inhuman existence. It is, to use an expression of Hegel, in its abasement the indignation at that abasement, an indignation to which it is necessarily driven by the contradiction between its human nature and its condition of life, which is the outright, resolute and comprehensive negation of that nature.

Within this antithesis, the private property-owner is therefore the conservative side, the proletarian the destructive side. From the former arises the action of preserving the antithesis, from the latter the action of annihilating it.

Indeed, private property drives itself in its economic movement towards its own dissolution, but only through a development which does not depend on it, which is unconscious and which takes place against the will of private property by the very nature of things, only inasmuch as it produces the proletariat as proletariat, poverty which is conscious of its spiritual and physical poverty, dehumanisation which is conscious of its dehumanisation, and therefore self-abolishing. The proletariat executes the sentence that private property pronounces on itself by producing the proletariat, just as it executes the sentence that wage-labour pronounces on itself by producing wealth for others and poverty for itself. When the proletariat is victorious, it by no means becomes the absolute side of society, for it is victorious only by abolishing itself and its opposite. Then the proletariat disappears as well as the opposite which determines it, private property.

When socialist writers ascribe this world-historic role to the proletariat, it is not at all... because they regard the proletarians as gods. Rather the contrary. Since in the fully-formed proletariat the abstraction of all humanity, even of the semblance of humanity, is practically complete; since the conditions of life of the proletariat sum up all the conditions of life of society today in their most inhuman form; since man has lost himself in the proletariat, yet at the same time has not only gained theoretical consciousness of that loss, but through urgent, no longer removable, no longer disguiseable, absolutely imperative need -- the practical expression of necessity -- is driven directly to revolt against this inhumanity, it follows that the proletariat can and must emancipate itself. But it cannot emancipate itself without abolishing the conditions of its own life. It cannot abolish the conditions of its own life without abolishing all the inhuman conditions of life of society today which are summed up in its own situation. Not in vain does it go through the stern but steeling school of labour. It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do. Its aim and historical action is visibly and irrevocably foreshadowed in its own life situation as well as in the whole organisation of bourgeois society today. There is no need to explain here that a large part of the English and French proletariat is already conscious of its historic task and is constantly working to develop that consciousness into complete clarity.[1]

While, in his later writings, Marx would generally use the word 'capital' (or 'the commodity') instead of 'private property', there is for us a fundamental continuity between what is expressed here and his later work.[2] However, notwithstanding Marx's optimism that a large part of the proletariat in 1845 was developing a consciousness of its historic task - that is, of self abolition - the ideology of the workers' movement quickly became an ideology of work, the dignity of labour, glorification of industry, progress, etc. If one looks at the trajectory of the historical workers' movement, one might easily conclude that, far from trying to abolish the proletariat and the conditions which give rise to it, it has - at least as represented by its dominant traditions - acted to affirm (even generalize) the proletarian condition and to attain recognition for the working class as workers, that is, as subjects within bourgeois society. Instead of the revolutionary watchword, "Abolish the wages system!", which Marx suggested,[3] the workers' movement inscribed on its banner the conservative motto, "A fair day's wage for a fair day's work!"

This assessment of the outcome as opposed to the stated intentions of the workers' movement can be applied to all its dominant traditions, both 'Marxist' (social democracy and Stalinism) and non-Marxist (labourism, syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism). The most extreme example, is of course, the large parts of the workers' movement that have supported the USSR, where the identification of socialism with modernization of the 'national economy', the proletarianization of the peasantry, the building of huge factories and exhortations to labour-discipline and productivity - in short, with capitalism - reached its apogee and became a model for 'third world' modernization across the world. Yet we also see it outside those who identify directly with Stalinism: in the embrace by syndicalists of productivist ideologies[4] (even allowing a significant number to pass over to fascism), in the social democrat Noske's definition of socialism as 'working a lot', in Lenin's embrace of Taylorism and iron labour discipline, in Trotsky's arguments for the militarization of labour and his critically expressed admiration for Stalin's industrial achievements,[5] in the anarcho-syndicalist militants flinging themselves into organizing production against the resistance of Spanish workers.[6] A further indication of the bankruptcy of the official workers' movement was the way in which the aspects of it which the fascist and Nazi movements[7] did not need to destroy could be integrated quite smoothly into the regimes they established.[8]

Of course, it could all be summed up in terms of betrayals: the betrayal of the social democratic parties and the trade unions, mobilizing workers for slaughter in the first world war and acting to save capitalism against workers insurrection afterwards; the betrayal of Stalin (or earlier, Bolshevik leaders, depending on one's politics), turning the Soviet Union from a vision of hope for workers throughout the world into a workhouse; the betrayal of the anarchist leaders[9] in Spain for joining the government and demobilizing workers' resistance to Stalinist repression.[10] In this view, these tendencies were at one moment on the workers' side, but at crucial moments go over to the side of capital and do so through the failings of their leadership. The point is to defend a pure tradition of - depending on one's ideological perspective - classical Marxism or true anarchism - a red or a black line - from how such traditions expressed themselves historically. Hidden in such assumptions is generally the idea that, with the right leaders or organization, those historical movements would have succeeded and communism would have 'won'; thus the task becomes to rebuild (or maintain or create) organizations that next time won't betray us.

But it must be asked, how did these ideologies become possible; how did the working class end up expressing itself in these ways? How did each of these organizational expressions of the proletariat - social democracy, Third International Communism, revolutionary syndicalism, anarcho-syndicalism - all end up supporting capitalism? One can use the term leftism[11] to get a handle on this phenomena but it remains true that leftism does not explain things, leftism needs to be explained.

Now, as Debord emphasized,[12] the movement of workers cannot simply be reduced to its ideological representations. Historically, the class struggle, including that waged by workers identifying with the movements described, has not always stayed within the limits their ideologies prescribe. On an everyday level, the behaviour of workers often runs counter to their political allegiances, the positions adopted by trade unions they might be members of, and even from their own previously expressed opinions. Organizationally (even before WW1), workers in the heartlands of the Second International expressed themselves in mass political strikes that went against the separation of political and economic action agreed by the social democrat parties and the unions.[13] Representing a more fundamental break, workers responded to the Second International parties and the unions' support for the first world war by leaving these organizations and setting up alternative organizations - factory struggle groups, breakaway parties, etc. Later, opposition to the way the Russian Revolution was developing emerged continuously, within and outside the party, in Russia and beyond. Large numbers of anarchist workers opposed the CNT's line both in terms of economic sacrifices for the war and later over the Maydays.[14] In another example, during WW2 American auto workers responded affirmatively to the combined efforts of employers, state and Stalinists to make them sign a no strike pledge... but then struck anyway![15]

Thus, as well as signs of workers accepting their role, there is both an everyday contradiction between workers and 'their' organizations' efforts to integrate them into capitalist society, and moments in which the working class has moved to rupture with its representatives. Whether conceiving of themselves as a fundamental break from the mainstream traditions of the workers' movement, or more often as in some way upholding the revolutionary kernel those traditions were abandoning, political/theoretical currents have regularly emerged from this contradiction.[16]


The 'historic ultra-left' refers to a number of such currents which emerged out of one of the most significant moments in the struggle against capitalism - the revolutionary wave that ended the First World War. Ultra-leftism offers an explanation of why the workers' movement failed to get rid of capitalism, and why in particular the Russian Revolution failed to deliver. Whatever its subsequent history, the ultra-left did not emerge as tiny sects or groups of dissidents but as a part of a mass social movement when the dominant tradition of social democracy was thoroughly discredited and it seemed as though the meaning of the workers' movement and communism was up for grabs. In Western Europe, large numbers of workers made a break with social democratic politics and gravitated to the Third International set up by the Bolshevik Party. However, in the crucial formative years after 1917, many sections of the world communist movement, including a majority of those in Italy and Germany (the areas of Western Europe which seemed closest to revolution), had or would develop a different understanding of what a communist break from social democracy amounted to, than that displayed by the leadership of the Bolsheviks. These differences would lead to splits. In 1920, in the build-up to the first proper[17] congress of the Third International, Lenin laid out what he considered the difference between 'Bolshevism' and these other tendencies in his (in)famous pamphlet - Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder.

The two ultra-lefts

One of the two main wings of the historic ultra-left, the Dutch/German Left, parted from the Third International on the basis of the debate opened by Lenin's polemic, on issues like what sort of party communists should form, the attitude to take towards parliament and trade unions, etc. The other main wing - Bordiga's Italian Left - essentially sided with Lenin at this point and only opposed Moscow's dominance of the world communist movement later, around issues like the United Front and Stalin's embrace of 'Socialism in one Country'. Thus, on the grounds around which it split from Moscow, and on issues like nationalism, trade unions[18] and the role of 'the party',[19] the Italian Left appears far from the Dutch/German Left. However, while there is no space in this text to go into the detailed histories of these currents[20] and how their positions evolved, there are good reasons to connect the two traditions. Despite the apparently fundamental difference over the role of the party that leads to mutual incomprehension between partisans of each tradition, their political analysis of certain crucial issues, such as grasping the counter-revolutionary nature of the USSR and its CPs, opposing united and popular fronts and maintaining a revolutionary opposition to capitalist wars, identified them together as the ultra-left as against Trotskyism, which defended the USSR, joined social democratic parties, etc. In perhaps the most significant historic example - a test by fire - while 'the left', including most Trotskyists, generally supported democracy and/or the USSR against fascism in the Spanish Civil War and in WW2, both 'wings' of the ultra-left agitated against support for the democratic bourgeoisie against the fascist variety, and against participation in all capitalist conflicts. In all these areas a clear line emerged between adherents of the ultra-left and Trotskyism. However, today the term 'ultra-leftism' is not used simply to describe the hard adherents of these historical traditions of the communist left; we can see it as an area defined by certain political positions and attitudes, which may or may not be taken from the historic ultra-left.

A war of positions?

Ultra-leftism presents itself as having a set of political positions distinct from or even opposed to standard 'leftist' positions. While leftists for a long time considered the USSR and similar regimes to be in some way socialist or at least post-capitalist, ultra-leftism very quickly saw them as capitalist; while leftists generally support trade unions as at the very least defensive working class organizations (while criticising their bureaucracy), ultra-leftists typically reject unions for incorporating the working class into capital and instead emphasize the workers' need to break from them and act independently; while leftism generally calls for participation in parliamentary elections in the form of 'critical support' for reformist working class parties or perhaps to support a strategy of so called 'revolutionary parliamentarianism',[21] ultra-leftism rejects such methods as a promotion of illusions; while leftism supports national liberation struggles, ultra-leftism expresses hostility to all nationalism; while leftism for the purposes of 'winning over workers' generally adopts 'united front' or even 'popular front' strategies of uniting with social democrats and even liberals, ultra-leftism sees this as failing to separate revolutionary communist politics from bourgeois politics; while leftists are often led by some of these positions to take sides in capitalist wars, ultra-leftists tend to take an internationalist stance of opposition to all sides. The differences here are so profound that one can see why the ultra-left see themselves as communist and sees leftists as the left wing of capital.

However, immediately after one sets out ultra-leftism as a set of positions or 'class lines', problems become evident. There is a tendency for many who identify with the ultra-left to define themselves negatively in relation to the left. There is the class struggle, the left relates to it one way, the ultra-left denounces this. The ultra-left becomes a negative impression of the left.[22] When an organization, or for that matter an individual, appears to adopt some 'ultra-left' positions while retaining other 'leftist' ones,[23] those identifying with the true, i.e. ultra-left, communist tradition are led into acts of demarcation and denunciation which appear as a defence of purity. Upsetting such an ideological operation is the fact that, as we have suggested, the groups that are clearly of the ultra-left do not even agree on all these positions themselves. In the face of this contradiction, it is possible to become partisan of one or other of these traditions[24] to the exclusion of the other or to adopt a bit of a pick-and-mix approach. But whatever the (not irrelevant) fine points in the disputes between the wings of the historic ultra-lefts, which can't be explored here, there is for us a more profound issue.

If, to repeat a formulation we are fond of, communism is the real movement, it is not fundamentally about the adoption of a set of principles, lines and positions.[25] Of course, the positions of the ultra-left emerged out of the class struggle, but such positions were only more or less right when they were made - they are approximations, an expression of 'as revolutionaries best saw it' - and thus something more needs to be done than just agree with them and proselytize. The class struggle can be seen as a wave that advanced to a high point around 1919 and as it receded left ideas around like flotsam in its wake. What these traditions represent is an attempt to maintain the historic lessons of this high point in the class struggle, despite the retreat of that movement. Moreover, the limits of that wave of class struggle - its inability to generalize as world revolution - led to varying revolutionary experiences in different countries expressing themselves in different lessons being drawn... and it is these that lie at the root of the historical spilt between the Lefts. Part of the price that these tendencies paid for maintaining the more or less revolutionary ideas in the circumstances of the more or less complete capitulation of the workers' movement to Stalinism, anti-fascism and the mobilization for another slaughter was that the ideas became somewhat frozen and ideological. When theory becomes an 'ism' - a specific set of positions separate from the class struggle - it is a sign of the retreat of the movement. There is a stiffness in the way many groups and individuals identifying with the 'ultra-left' express themselves. For many, the adoption, reproduction and assertion of these positions mechanically in the face of the class struggle acts to reinforce their own identity as 'revolutionary', while reducing their ability to recognize and relate to the contradictions of real social movements. To think that the positions are simply revolutionary, or that adopting them makes one revolutionary, reifies what being revolutionary is. Communism is the attempt to express the real movement; but the real movement is not fully present until it is successful; thus communist theory is only partial - an aspiration - and the theoretical work is never quite finished. It is taken forward by advances in the class struggle and the reflection on this. Put another way, theory does not take the point of view of the totality but of the aspiration to the totality.[26] It is inadequate and unhistorical to assume that the ultra-left had the right ideas but that they simply lost out to the wrong ones, and on this basis to assert its critique of trade unions and leftist political parties when the opportunity occurs.

As we said in our first editorial,[27] the '60s and '70s saw a re-emergence of a whole series of theoretical currents, which included the ultra-left. But while a number of groups that sprung up regurgitated as ideology the theories they were discovering, others worked to actually develop theory adequate to the new conditions. The task before the new generation was to take up ideas, such as those of the historic ultra-left, in a non-ideological way. An irony was that the place where their legacy has been taken up in a dynamic and original way has not been Germany, Holland or Italy, but France. There is a real sense in which the 'modern' ultra-left has largely been a French phenomenon.

Ultra-leftism as a French tradition[28]

The May '68 movement, or at least its most advanced elements, gravitated towards a 'councilist' perspective: derived from the Dutch/German Left, councilism rejected Leninism and the party and put its faith in the 'workers councils'.[29] A total surprise to the left, the character of this movement had best been prefigured in the analyses of non-orthodox ultra-left influenced groups[30] like the Situationist International (SI) and Socialism or Barbarism (S ou B), and its successor organizations such as ICO.[31]

In the wake of '68, there was a surge of interest in the ultra-left. With the SI not taking new members, and busy expelling the ones they had,[32] it was ICO that attracted a large part of the new influx. It expanded massively to become the largest ultra-left group in France, with a few hundred members. It had links with many local 'councilist' groups that emerged across France, one of the more significant of which was the one TC emerged from - the Marseilles-based Cahiers du Communisme de Conseils (Notebooks on Council Communism).

However, the adequacy of the council communist perspective was increasingly questioned by individuals and groups[33] appropriating ideas coming from the Italian Left and in particular its critique of self-management.[34] An important part of the dynamism of the French ultra-left lies in the fact that one of the main ways Bordiga and the Italian Left's ideas were introduced to France[35] in this period was not by traditional Left Communists but by less orthodox figures like Camatte and others around the journal Invariance, and by Gilles Dauvé and the group Mouvement Communiste. In a text that has been translated as part of Eclipse and Re-emergence of the Communist Movement, Dauvé argues correctly that a problem with the (councilist) ultra-left is that it opposed the bureaucracy, state control and the Leninist party with another set of organizational forms - workers' democracy, self-management and the councils - missing the issue of the content of communism. If the defining politics of '68 - the social content was something else - had been 'self managementist', then the critique was a significant one.[36]

Another group TC mention, Révolution International/ICC,[37] are also connected to the dissatisfaction with 'councilism'. However, it has largely rejected any new thinking as 'modernism' in favour of a more fundamentalist -'the correct positions have already been arrived at' - Left Communism based on a select appropriation of the Dutch/German and Italian Left heritages. It managed to recruit many of the councilist groups and individuals that had sprung up in France and elsewhere on the basis of the line that revolution was imminent and it was necessary to get organized and build a left communist organization/party.

It is the less organizationally fixated and more theoretically questioning currents, of which TC are part, that are more interesting for us. As Loren Goldner puts it, debates in the French ultra-left in 1968-73 reapproached the issue of capitalism in terms of value "in order to insist, rightly, that communism was neither 'nationalised property' or 'workers' control of production' but the positive supersession of commodity production and all its categories: value, wage labour, capital, the proletariat as a social relationship, all grasped as an integral whole."[38] Informing the debates, and allowing them to transcend an ultra-left version of Second International Marxism, were the newly available texts by Marx, the Grundrisse and the 'Results of the Immediate Process of Production' (the 'Missing Sixth Chapter' of Capital). Bordiga and the circle around him, including Camatte, had been amongst the first to recognize the significance of these texts. Whatever their problems,[39] the strength of Camatte and others was that they did not take the theoretical ideas of either the Dutch/German and/or Italian Lefts, or even of Marx, as complete and finished doctrines simply needing to be propagated, but attempted to approach reality in a non-ideological way.

One example of the usefulness of a non-dogmatic taking up of the ideas of the Italian left was that the German/Dutch Left factoryist and economistic vision of self-management could be subjected to the critique of the Italian Left, but at the same time the Italian Left's conception that revolution is first of all a political act could be overturned with an idea of revolution as fundamentally neither political nor economic but social: communization - the direct negation of capitalist social relations, and in particular the enterprise form, and their replacement by human ones. If in the period up to and including May '68 the SI had been the most dynamic revolutionary tendency, an argument can be made that, in the years following, it was other tendencies more open (critically) to the Italian Left and to the newly-published texts of Marx's Critique of Political Economy that were at the cutting edge of theory and critique. Part of the SI's power was that they had not simply adopted council communism, but with their critique of culture and of everyday life, their practices of drift and diversion etc. had pushed and deepened the meaning of revolution. Similarly, the best French 'ultra-left' groups of the '70s, by not simply adopting a left communist ideology but using the newly available Marx to rethink what the overcoming of capitalism was, went further in a revolutionary grasping of what had been novel in the '68 events and in the new developments in the class struggle continuing to occur across the advanced capitalist world. Without agreeing with every innovation of these currents, it seems clear to us that communist theory was being advanced in the French ultra-left scene not least through a questioning of the limits of 'ultra-leftism'. It is out of this milieu that TC emerge.

Théorie Communiste on objectivism

TC place objectivism and the other issues raised by our 'Decadence' articles within a historical schema based on Marx's concepts of formal and real subsumption of labour,[40] and a whole set of categories which they have developed over the last thirty years. The criticisms TC make of particular sections of the 'Decadence' articles are in many cases valid - for example, our discussion of the Russian revolution and our treatment of autonomist Marxism - are intertwined with this overall perspective. Our impression is that TC are certainly asking some of the right questions.

A difficulty the reader (and those we have asked to translate for us) find is that TC express themselves in a difficult and sometimes obscure manner. They seem to insist on and repeat a number of rather abstract formulations - for example, the ideas of the mutual involvement of capital and proletariat, and of the self-presupposition of capital - in order to grasp capital and the class struggle. TC feel the idea of "mutual involvement of proletariat and capital" is missing from our articles. However while at some points the articles do not escape a separation of capital(ism) and class struggle, what certainly seems misplaced to us is TC's thinking that the weaknesses in the articles are founded on Aufheben's "preference for the concept of alienation to that of exploitation." On the contrary, we'd say that the place in the articles where the conception of 'mutual involvement' is most present is actually in our use of the category of alienation. This is something we will return to in our response to their critique.

The more we read TC, the more it is evident that their categories are based on a close reading of Marx's Critique of Political Economy, and in particular of the Grundrisse and the 'Results of the Immediate Process of Production'. Part of the difficulty of TC's writing is that they move between the abstract level of the theory in the Grundrisse and a more concrete examination of the class struggle. This is not necessarily a criticism - we get much from the Grundrisse and there is nothing wrong with someone writing at that level now (even if it is likely to restrict their readership). One possibility to consider is that TC's constant return to certain abstract formulations, even at the price of their writing becoming repetitious and difficult to read, may have advantages in resisting the path of least resistance of bourgeois thought, stopping oneself slipping into the type of thought which accepts and reproduces fetishized appearances and separations.[41] So while TC's abstract theory is undoubtedly difficult, one might say any attempt to understand the complex processes of history will be difficult, as is Marx's. One must deal with problems at the level of difficulty which they demand. However, a merit of Marx's abstractions is that they move, they allow a grasp of reality and open it up - do TC's? Marx's abstract level of theorizing was usually accompanied by texts in which he made every effort to be comprehensible, to present the practical implications, as he saw it, of his more theoretical work back to the real movement, which he, like TC, would see as the actual origin of his theory. Likewise, TC have interesting things to say about the class struggle, both in the past and with recent developments, which they describe as 'radical democratism' and the 'direct action movement'.

Below we present TC's account of their history and perspective, followed by our own summary of the main thrust of the 'Decadence' articles, which serves as a preface to TC's critique.

Théorie Communiste: Background and Perspective

The first issue of the review Théorie Communiste (TC) came out in 1977. The original group involved had got together in 1975. Previously some of the members of this group had published the review Intervention Communiste (two issues appeared in '72 and '73) and had participated in the publication Cahiers du Communisme de Conseils - Notebooks on Council Communism. Edited in Marseilles between '68 and '73, this publication was very much linked to ICO (Informations et Correspondance Ouvriére - Workers' News and Correspondence, which has since become Echanges et Mouvement - Exchanges and Movement). The group separated from Cahiers du Communisme de Conseils as soon as it started to fuse with Révolution Internationale (the International Communist Current). The brief history which follows allows us, in part, to get to grips with the problems and questions which existed at the origin of TC.

At the beginning of the '70s a whole tendency already critical of the historic ultra-left began to find aspects of the ultra-left's analysis inadequate, in particular their critique of all the political and union mediations which give form to the proletariat's belonging, as a class, to the capitalist mode of production. In the balance sheet that we can draw up of the wave of class struggle at the end of the '60s, the call for class action in itself masks the essential problem: it is not a question of rediscovering a pure assertion of the proletariat. The revolution, the abolition of capital, will be the immediate negation of all classes, including the proletariat. Yet we didn't want to adopt the approach of Invariance who, from this observation, ended up rejecting any classist perspective on the contradictions of existing society and the revolution, nor that of Mouvement Communiste, led by Jean Barrot, who, by an injection of Bordigism, sought to radicalize the ultra-left problematic.

At first the theoretical work of TC (in cooperation with the group who published Négation) consisted of elaborating the concept of programmatism. The crisis at the end of the '60s/beginning of the '70s was the first crisis of capital during the real subsumption of labour under capital. It marked the end of all the previous cycles which, since the beginning of the 19th Century, had for their immediate content and for their objective the increase in strength of the class within the capitalist mode of production and its affirmation as the class of productive work, through the taking of power and the putting in place of a period of transition. Practically and theoretically, programmatism designates the whole of that period of the class struggle of the proletariat. Despite having renewed this problematic out of necessity, Echanges (published in English and French) remains on the same general basis, namely that in each struggle the proletariat must rediscover itself; revolution becomes the process of struggles, the process of this conquest of itself.

The central theoretical question thus becomes: how can the proletariat, acting strictly as a class of this mode of production, in its contradiction with capital within the capitalist mode of production, abolish classes, and therefore itself, that is to say: produce communism? A response to this question which refers to some kind of humanity underneath the proletarian or to human activity underneath work, not only traps itself in a philosophical quagmire, but always returns to the consideration that the class struggle of the proletariat can only go beyond itself in so far as it already expresses something which exceeds and affirms itself (we can find this even in the present theoretical formalisations of the 'direct action movement'). The sweaty labourer has been replaced by Man, but the problem has not changed, which remains that of 'Aufhebung'.

Starting from this basis, we have undertaken a work of theoretical redefinition of the contradiction between the proletariat and capital. In the first place it was necessary to redefine the contradiction as being simultaneously the contradiction bearing communism as its resolution and the reproductive and dynamic contradiction of capital. It was necessary to produce the identity of the proletariat as a class of the capitalist mode of production and as a revolutionary class, which implies that we no longer conceive this 'revolutionariness' as a class nature which adjusts itself, disappears, is reborn, according to circumstances and conditions. This contradiction is exploitation. With exploitation as a contradiction between the classes we grasped their characterisation as the characterisation of the community, therefore as being simultaneously their reciprocal involvement. This meant that we were able to grasp: the impossibility of the affirmation of the proletariat; the contradiction between the proletariat and capital as history; the critique of any revolutionary nature of the proletariat as a defining essence buried or masked by the reproduction of the whole (the self-presupposition of capital). We had historicized the contradiction and therefore the revolution and communism, and not only their circumstances. The revolution and communism are what is produced historically through the cycles of struggles which accentuate the development of the contradiction. The contradiction between the proletariat and capital was really disobjectified, without taking the economy to be an illusion. The tendential fall in the rate of profit became immediately a contradiction between classes and not that which triggers it, as always remained the case with Mattick, even though his theory of crises opens the way to the supersession of objectivism.

In addition to the deepening of these theoretical presuppositions, the work of TC consists of defining the structure and content of the contradiction between classes at work since the end of the '70s, and consolidated in the '80s. There was a restructuring of the relations of exploitation, that is to say of the contradiction between classes, which was the second phase of real subsumption.

The extraction of relative surplus has become a process of reproduction of the interface between capital and labour which is adequate to it in that it contains no element, no point of crystallisation, no sticking point which can be a hindrance to the necessary fluidity and constant overturning which it needs. Against the previous cycle of struggles, restructuring has abolished all specificity, guarantees, 'welfare', 'Fordian compromise', division of the global cycle into national areas of accumulation, into fixed relations between the centre and the periphery, into internal zones of accumulation (East/West). The extraction of surplus value in its relative mode demands constant upheaval and the abolition of all restrictions to the immediate process of production, the reproduction of labour power and the relations of capitals with each other.

The restructuring of the capitalist mode of production cannot exist without a workers' defeat. This defeat was that of the worker's identity, of the Communist parties, of 'actually existing socialism', of trade unionism, of self-management, of self-organisation. It is a whole cycle of struggles in its diversity and its contradictions which was defeated in the '70s and early '80s. Restructuring is essentially counter-revolution. Its essential result, since the beginning of the '80s, is the disappearance of any productive worker's identity reproduced and confirmed within the capitalist mode of production.

When the contradictory relation between the proletariat and capital is no longer defined in the fluidity of capitalist reproduction, the proletariat can only oppose itself to capital by calling into question the movement in which it is itself reproduced as a class. The proletariat no longer carries a project of social reorganisation as an affirmation of what it is. In contradiction with capital, it is, in the dynamic of the class struggle, in contradiction with its own existence as a class. This is now the content of, and what is at stake in, the class struggle. It is the basis of our present work through analyses not only of the course of capital but also, indissociably, of struggles such as that of December '95 in France, of the movement of the unemployed or the sans-papiers,[42] as well as everyday struggles which are less spectacular but, even so, indicative of this new cycle.

That which is fundamentally radical about the cycle of struggles is simultaneously its limit: the existence of the class in the reproduction of capital. This limit which is specific to the new cycle of struggles is the foundation and the historically specific content of what from 1995 we have called 'radical democratism'. It is the expression and the formalisation of the limits of this cycle of struggles. It sets up in political practice or in an alternativist perspective the disappearance of any worker's identity so as to ratify the existence of the class within capital as a collection of citizens and/or producers, an existence to which it asks capital to conform. In opposition to this, but on the same basis, the 'direct action movement' thinks of itself as already being new 'disalienated' social relations opposed to capital.

Starting out from this cycle of struggles, revolution is a supersession produced by it. There cannot be an extension of present struggles as they are in themselves to revolution for the simple reason that revolution is the abolition of classes. This supersession is the moment when, in the class struggle, class belonging itself becomes an exterior constraint imposed by capital. It is a contradictory process internal to the capitalist mode of production. In the meantime, neither orphans of the labour movement, nor prophets of the communism to come, we participate in the class struggle as it is on a daily basis and as it produces theory.

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

The main TC text which follows below is, as its title suggests, critical comments which they made to accompany their translation of the decadence articles from Aufheben issues 2-4.[43] For readers who have not seen the texts or perhaps wish to be reminded we will give a summary here.

In order to deal with the theory of decadence or decline it was necessary to consider a great deal of material - conceptions of capitalist crisis and collapse, the evolution of transitory forms, the necessity or otherwise of socialism - which have dominated attempts at the revolutionary analysis of twentieth-century capitalism. The underlying theme we identified (and one that attracted TC's interest) was the issue of objectivism. Under this term, we analysed a prevalent form of understanding dominated by the separation of the objective and the subjective - capitalist development and the class struggle - the posing of capitalism as, so to speak, a machine with an inexorable objective (mechanical?) logic heading towards its collapse, generating a subjective response in the necessity of the class struggle moving towards socialist revolution. In this conception, the driving force towards communism, its material basis, was seen as the contradiction between the productive forces and the relations of production understood as a fundamental underlying objective reality to which socialist revolution would be an inevitable consequence (with a collapse into barbarism sometimes suggested as the only other possibility). Based on such a conception, the central problem of revolution tended to be reduced to one way or other of having consciousness and subjectivity catch up with the objective situation, with the crisis playing a key role. Objectivism could be expressed politically in opposite ways; as Trotsky's reduction of everything to the crisis of leadership, with the revolutionary task reduced to tactical questions of organizing the vanguard or party to take advantage of the crisis that would surely come; or, as with Mattick and 'councilism', be seen in a totally non-vanguardist way with revolution a spontaneous working class reaction to the crisis. We traced the origin of such theorizing to the 'classical Marxism' developed by Engels and the Second International of which Trotskyism and 'left-communism' or the 'ultra-left' claimed to be the true continuations. We saw how these theories seemed to be undermined by the failure of capitalism to collapse or produce a revolution after WW2. In the second article in the series, we then addressed the heterodox currents; like Socialism or Barbarism, the Situationists and the autonomist Marxists, which emerged at this point and who questioned the objectivist decline problematic and asserted the crucial importance of the revolutionary subject in the overthrow of capitalism. But we also noted how the return of crisis itself in the '70s seemed to renew the necessity of understanding crisis - objectivistically or otherwise. We finished with a consideration of the approach adopted by the Radical Chains magazine which focused on the role of state interventions like welfare as the 'prevention of communism', and we ended with (a rather too brief) suggestion of an alternative perspective.

We now turn, then, to TC's response to our 'Decadence' articles.

Aufheben's 'Decadence': A response[44]

It goes without saying that for us to undertake what represented a considerable task for us, a translation intended for publication of the three-part Aufheben article on objectivism and the 'theories of decadence', we consider this text of great interest. Beyond the listing of a huge mass of documentation and the construction of a history of the concept of objectivism, this interest lies in the underlying critical point of view on this history and the perspectives it opens for a current theoretical production.

This point-of-view can be summed up in four quotations:

"For us, the market or law of value is not the essence of capital; its essence is rather the self-expansion of value: that is, of alienated labour."

"Autonomist theory in general and the theory of crisis as class struggle in particular did essential work on the critique of the reified categories of objectivist Marxism. It allows us to see them 'as modes of existence of the class struggle' [TC emphasis]. If at times they overstate this, failing to see the real extent to which the categories have an objective life as aspects of capital, it remains necessary to maintain the importance of the inversion."

"The object of the law of value is not products but the working class (…) its existence outside it."[45]

"Marx established how the predominant class system and the class struggle act through the commodity, wage labour, etc." [Editors' note: Our actual words were: "Marx analysed how the system of class rule and class struggle operates through the commodity, wage labour etc."]

These formulations could very well be ours.

It is rare that theoretical works attend to this essential problem of objectivism without descending into the worst deranged subjectivist imaginings or without simply abandoning a theory of classes, of their contradiction and of communism as the supersession of this contradiction. However (fortunately there are always 'howevers'), we have a series of critical comments to formulate on this text, comments which we are ready to discuss.

The basis of these comments is the absence, despite the quotations above, of the conception of a mutual involvement between proletariat and capital as defining their contradiction. As we show in the piece on objectivism (TC 15), the question here is of determining the concept of exploitation, to which Aufheben seems to prefer that of alienation, which upholds the exteriority between the 'alienated subject' and its 'essence' outside itself. The absence of this conception of the contradiction between the proletariat and capital as mutual involvement, the preference for the concept of alienation, leads to affirmations which we absolutely cannot share, such as the following: "for us, the revolution is the return of the subject to herself...". Without the production of the contradiction between classes as mutual involvement, we necessarily remain within the perspective of the revolution as affirmation, as the triumph of the proletariat; to this perspective we counterpose the revolution as the abolition of the proletariat in the abolition of capital, within the movement where "the defence of its interests" leads the proletariat to consider its definition as a class to be an external constraint. "The return of the subject to herself/itself" doesn't really transcend the contradiction, or its terms, but it simply represents the return of the subject to itself (this smacks of teleology). Even the title of the journal 'Aufheben' raises this whole question.

From then on, one has the tendency when reading the text to understand the supersession of the capitalist mode of production as something rather formal. For example, the Bolsheviks are 'reproached' for planning 'from above'. According to this view the Bolsheviks developed capitalism because of the forms they decided to adopt for the labour process: one-man management, bourgeois specialists, Taylorism; but didn't they rather 'develop' because wage labour remained? Must we deduce that communism is planning 'from below'? Can we now maintain the Marxian vision of communism as the "free association of the producers", in the real subsumption of labour to capital (assuming that the passage of Capital on the commodity deals with communist society). This would mean that we limit ourselves to the forms of organization of production, which the article denounces with a concise and effective formula: "Communism is a content - the abolition of wage labour - not a form."

The critique of the Bolshevik counter-revolution remains formal, in the sense that it is not related to the content of the revolution in this historic phase of the contradiction between the proletariat and capital, a phase in which the revolution could only lead to the rising strength of the class within capital and its affirmation as a dominant pole of society. The Bolshevik counter-revolution then necessarily articulates itself with the revolution. The Lefts, even the Dutch/German Left, never grasped the true nature of the Russian Revolution: a revolution whose content was the autonomous affirmation of the class and which found, in labour's claim to be able to manage society, that is, in labour's very strength within capital in the transition to real subsumption, the revolution's own limitation turned against itself. The parties of the Second International were in a position to take charge of and formalize this counter-revolution to differing degrees according to their specific situations. The revolution as affirmation of the class transforms itself relentlessly into the management of capital, turning into counter-revolution; revolution provides counter-revolution with its own content. In 'The Unknown Revolution', Voline relates a 'little scene' he witnessed. In a factory, the workers had started to organize their transactions with other firms themselves. A representative of Bolshevik authority arrives, and, using threats, orders the end of this type of activity, because the state is undertaking it. Of course, this did not go without confrontation, without opposition, but is it possible to imagine an exchange which would not take a form alienated from the exchangers connected by it?

The absence of the mutual involvement between proletariat and capital in their contradiction, in our reading of this article, very often gives us the impression that we are dealing with a communist project that is unvarying, but subject to the objective conditions which, after having as it were been chased out through the front door, have the tendency to return through the back door. Hence the presentation of objectivism or of economic determinism as 'errors', as 'deviations', and the incapacity of the article really to go beyond a history of ideas. There is the proletariat, there is capital. The latter evolved, the former experiencing this evolution as 'class composition'. But the evolution of these terms isn't understood as the history of their relationship. They are in contradiction, but this contradiction is only a mutual, reflexive relation and not a self-differentiating totality. Thus history is understood as the history of capital, subject to the constraint of working class struggle, but not as that of the contradiction between the proletariat and capital. Therefore the revolution and communism cannot really be historicized. It's no use adding on a subjective approach from the working class viewpoint. The point of view has changed, but the problematic of objectivity has not been superseded. This is what the article glimpses when the subject is workerism, of which it doesn't manage to formulate a critique other than economic.

If one considers the central problem of objectivism, its critique begins with the production of a theory in which we grasp exploitation and the falling rate of profit as the contradiction between proletariat and capital, and not merely as the development of capital; the central concepts are those of exploitation and accumulation. As long as the revolution could only present itself as the affirmation of the proletariat (formal subsumption, first phase of real subsumption), the contradiction of the capitalist mode of production as dependent on the mutual involvement between proletariat and capital was unimaginable, because then the negation of capital could only be, ipso facto, the negation of the proletariat. And so the revolution as formal subsumption of labour to capital and in the first phase of its real subsumption, as affirmation of the proletariat, becomes inevitably an economism. If the revolution is the affirmation of the class, in making revolution, the proletariat must necessarily resolve a contradiction of capitalism of which it is not one of the limits but simply the best placed executant, so that the supersession of this contradiction, far from being the proletariat's own disappearance, becomes its triumph. The strategy based on 'proletarian subjectivity' doesn't go beyond this problematic.

As a pole in the contradiction within the capitalist mode of production, the proletariat's existence and practice can only match the historical course of its contradiction with capital as exploitation and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. This is the whole importance of the crisis theory of Mattick, which in its objectivism, can't be used as it is, and must be criticized from our point of view. It is fundamental to keep an analysis of the crisis on the basis of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. The law of the falling rate of profit only needs to be deobjectified, "dereified" as the article says. When we read in the article: "it (capital) creates a limit to its accumulation in the fact that it can only produce for the market.", even if it goes on to say: "capital constantly revolutionizes relations of production in order to permit their continual expansion. This need constantly to transform social relations means that capital is constantly driven to confront the working class", and the matter is ended with: "it is possible that the crisis creates the conditions in which the proletariat begins to oppose its interests to those of capital.", we are led to believe that:

1) The crisis is situated at the level of the market,
2) The strategy of capital is the development of the productive forces,
3) The revolutionary driving force of the proletariat is the defence of its interests.

On one side the crisis, on the other the class struggle; a meeting of divergent interests shaping capital's path, but the development of capital and the crisis are not understood in themselves as class struggle.

As the article fully shows in its key developments, the theoretical bedrock of objectivism lies in the separation between the class struggle and the development of the capitalist mode of production. But the basis of this theoretical separation is the impossibility of the proletariat itself, in this whole formal subsumption period of class struggle, and even under certain current forms, of being an element of the contradiction to be overturned. It is only the contradiction's downtrodden extremity and only has the role of gravedigger. Capitalism is only understood as a set of conditions, evolving towards an optimal situation with regard to an essential and immutable revolutionary nature of the proletariat, even if historically this nature fails to manifest itself. The critique of objectivism cannot only be the critique of the separation between class struggle and capitalist development, it can only be achieved in the critique of the concept of the revolutionary nature of the proletariat, as determined once and for all, and adjusting itself according to conditions. The proletariat is only revolutionary in the contradiction which opposes it to capital. In that case, it is not a nature which is determined, but a relation and a history. As long a revolutionary being of the proletariat is presupposed, against this being conditions are necessary, which are necessarily objective conditions. As long as there is no critique of this conception of the revolutionary nature of the proletariat, there is no way out of the objectivist problematic. As long as this critique has not been made, it is impossible to go beyond the point of view governed by a dichotomy between class struggles and economic contradictions, which are only connected by relations of mutual determination.

It is in realizing the limits of workerism and in distancing themselves from it, that there is a sense that Aufheben are confronted by this problem. The article expresses well that there's a limit in considering the class struggle as the clash of two strategies in the workerist conception, but without explicitly putting forward the mutual involvement between the classes as defining their contradiction. Workerism only makes an inversion of objectivism, without going beyond it, it only adds a subjective aspect such as Negri's working class 'self-valorisation' which tags on an additional determination in the relation between proletariat and capital, but one that doesn't change the conception of this relation. Having a sum of determinations, it is thought that the totality of this relation has been reached, but the relation has not been deobjectified, a subjective determination has just been added in opposition to the objective. Aufheben reproaches the workerists for not doing enough to preserve the objectivity of the reproduction of capital and for merely declaring that "everything is class struggle". Not managing to grasp objectivity and economy as a necessary moment in the reproduction of the contradiction between capital and the proletariat, Aufheben ends up with a sort of position of mitigation: you must deobjectify the contradiction between capital and the proletariat, but keep aside a little objectivity, above all for periods of counter-revolution. Objectivism has only been surpassed from the point of view of the proletariat and preserved as the reality of capitalism. The critique was not a deconstruction of objectivity and its reconstruction as economy, as necessary moment of relation between classes, it was only the same thing seen from another viewpoint. On this subject, the question of the 'incompleteness' of Capital is particularly futile. What can be deemed Marx's opinion on the wage as class struggle in Wages, Price and Profit or in 'Speech on Free Trade', allows no doubt to hang over the fact that the struggle 'for' (and even 'over': Negri) the wage, will never result in anything but the wage. As for 'small circulation' as a space for workers' control, this is a product of that 'optimism' among the workerists, as evoked by the article, which is now foundering even in the reformist political arena.

Paradoxically, the addition of a subjective side, a 'working class point of view', only serves to confirm, to reinforce, the objectivism which has been renounced as something that is to be dismantled. It merely adds an 'active' supplement to it.

In the same manner, from the side of the understanding of the actions of the capitalist class, the idea still lingers that the maintenance and the reproduction of the social relation of exploitation depends on other types of relations from those that it brings into play to reproduce itself and which presuppose itself. While criticising Radical Chains, the article presents the following analysis: "the idea of a perfect regulation of needs under the law of value is a myth. The law of value and capital have always been constrained first by forms of landed property and of community which preceded it, and then by the class struggle growing up within it. Capital is compelled to relate to the working class by other means than the wage, and the state is its necessary way of doing this. The Poor Law expressed one strategy for controlling the working class: administration expresses a different one. Once we consider the law of value as always constrained, then the idea of its partial suspension loses its resonance." And we would be tempted to add: it is the very idea that capital relates to the working class by other means than the value, the wage etc., which loses all resonance.

If indeed it is accurate that being "always constrained" forms part of the definition, then the state, its civil services, its army and police, are attributes of value, of wages and exploitation. As the article says, it is not enough merely to remain with the most abstract presentation of value at the beginning of Capital, it is necessary to consider value in its application. Through the state, capital does not relate to the working class through other means than wages.

If the self-presupposition [l'autoprésupposition] of capital-in-general is considered, the transformation of surplus product into surplus value then into additional capital can never taken for granted because of the very laws of capital (that is falling rate of profit, and constraint on the exploitation of labour power). In this moment of self-presupposition, the activity of the capitalist class always consists of throwing the proletariat back into a situation of exploitation (through political action, violence, bankruptcies, lay-offs, etc.). We have not got out of an analysis of the self-presupposition of capital and we have the relation between the proletariat and the capitalist class as specific and contradictory activities. The danger would lie in the autonomisation of the poles of the contradiction of the capitalist mode of production, the proletariat and capital, into two strategies.

For us, objectivism is linked to two sets of causes: the first lie in an epoch of class struggle which poses revolution and communism as affirmation of the proletariat and therefore excludes the latter from the field of contradictions of the mode of production. Secondly, the proletariat only takes advantage of 'economic' contradictions of which it is supposedly not one of the components.

A constant of the reproduction of capital that we call its self-presupposition is the very basis of economic reality: all the terms of the reproduction of society reappear as 'objectivized' conditions of reproduction on the side of capital at the end of each cycle.

The result of this is that the concept and critique of objectivism cannot serve as a conductor for an analysis of the problems of developing 'theory'. The decisive break in 'theory' cuts through both objectivism and the theories taking its critique on board. The line of fracture and discrimination in the development of theory is located between the class struggle bringing the abolition of capital as affirmation of the proletariat and the class struggle bringing the proletariat's own abolition in the abolition of capital, that is the very content of the transition from formal subsumption to real subsumption and of the latter's history. If we do not start from this basis, then one has the impression that 'theory' has a history. In the absence of this historical critique which says why the revolution is at a particular moment in time determinist, economist, objectivist, the internal critique of which the article has so much trouble getting rid, suffers from only considering objectivism as a theoretical 'error' or 'deviation', or even as determined by 'objective' conditions.

"As Pannekoek pointed out, the real decline of capitalism is the self-emancipation of the working class". This is the conclusion of the affected critical brushing aside realised in the text, but here one is at the beginning of the essential problem: what is the contradiction between the proletariat and capital, as epoch of the capitalist mode of production, which brings about communism? As the article states well, it is not a question of defining "the level of development of the productive forces incompatible with capitalist relations of production", but rather of historically defining the content and the structure of a contradiction between classes. It is true that this was not the subject of the article, but reading it makes us wish that this were the subject of its conclusion. We remain a little dissatisfied to read: "from time to time, the relation between capitalist development and the class reaches a point of possible rupture. Revolutionaries and the class take their chance; if the wave fails to go beyond capital, capital continues to a higher level."

The whole history of this mode of production is yet to be written as history of the contradiction between classes. Can we remain with the vision presented in the article of a succession of revolutionary onslaughts never victorious so far, always defeated, and understand their defeat as being down either to exterior (objective) conditions, or the force of counter-revolution, unrelated to the historical nature of the contradiction between the proletariat and capital, which is revealed as much in the revolution as in the counter-revolution? This is a vision which returns inexorably to a revolutionary essence of the proletariat, identical in each successive onslaught. The "organic relation between class struggle and capitalist development", which forms the very bedrock of this whole article, is not the relation of reciprocal determinations of two elements defined a priori in themselves. It is really an organic relation and in that the particularisation of a concrete totality which only exists in the parties and their mutual demands. The contradiction between the proletariat and capital is the development of capital.


[1] TC themselves would probably not agree with the way Marx approaches the issues here. In their critique of our articles they question our use of the concept of alienation. For TC, Marx's thematic of alienation and aufheben in the Economic Manuscripts and The Holy Family is not continued in his later work. This is one of the points we have been trying to make sense of by looking at some other of TC's writings - for example: "Let us not confuse 'alienated labour' as it functions in the Manuscripts and the alienation of labour that we will find in the Grundrisse or in Capital. In the first case, alienated labour is the self-movement of the human essence as generic being; in the second, it is no longer a question of human essence, but of historically determined social relations, in which the worker is separated in part or in whole from the conditions of his labour, of his product and of his activity itself" ('Pour en Finire avec la Critique du Travail', TC, No. 17). We argue that, though Marx's treatment gets steadily more historical and more concrete, the thematic of alienation is essentially the same. This is something we will deal with in our response to their critique.

[2] In Capital Marx does not talk about private property because he subsumes it in the commodity (a society of generalized commodity production is one of absolute private property.) In his earlier writings, when he did talk of the system of private property, Marx's attention was already on the capital-labour relation. In the previous year to The Holy Family, Marx had written: "the antithesis between propertylessness and property is still an indifferent antithesis, not grasped in its active connection, its inner relation, not yet grasped as contradiction, as long as it is not understood as the antithesis between labour and capital. ... labour, the subjective essence of private property as exclusion of property and capital, objective labour as exclusion of labour, constitutes private property in its developed relation of contradiction: a vigorous relation, driving towards resolution" (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, p. 345, section on Private Property and Communism). Marx does not change his object of study when he focuses on the relation between labour and capital rather than between alienated labour and private property because the latter is just a more developed and concrete expression of the former. In the form of wage labour and capital, 'private property', which existed before capital, is brought to its highest point of contradiction and antagonism.

[3] Marx, at the end of 'Wages, Price and Profit', advised trade unions that instead of the conservative motto, "A fair day's wage for a fair day's work!" they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, "Abolition of the wages system!".

[4] Even the outstanding example of revolutionary syndicalism - the IWW of the first decades of the twentieth century, which really emphasized the 'abolition of the wage system' - was not immune. The trajectory of many of its militants towards the American Communist Party even as it Stalinized did not come from nowhere. As Wright notes, "the sympathy within certain Wobbly circles for technicians and Taylorist principles betrayed a growing detachment from the IWW's initial rejection of the capitalist organisation of labour." (Steve Wright, Storming Heaven (London: Pluto Press, 2002), p 195, citing La Formazione dell'Operaio Massa negli USA 1898/1922, pp 179-187).

[5] "With the bourgeois economists we have no longer anything to quarrel over. Socialism has demonstrated its right to victory, not on the pages of Das Kapital, but in an industrial arena comprising a sixth part of the earth's surface-not in the language of dialectics, but in the language of steel, cement and electricity." (Revolution Betrayed, Ch. 1.) Even his criticisms of the USSR are often for not being productive and efficient enough, which is not surprising coming from the man who, when he was in charge, advocated military discipline for the workforce.

[6] See M. Seidman, Workers Against Work: Labor in Paris and Barcelona during the Popular Fronts (UCLA Press, 1993).

[7] Of course, the Nazis were not the first to put the national in socialism: the social democrats supported the First World War, a great deal of the way Stalin sold 'Socialism in One Country' was by appealing to the patriotism of the population, and we see later examples in Labour Zionism and various 'third world' socialisms from Tanzania to Cambodia.

[8] Just as Nazism and Italian fascism incorporated large parts of social democracy into their regimes, after WW2, social democracy incorporated a great deal of fascism into the post-war order or, as Bordigists provocatively put it, "while the fascist nations lost WW2, fascism won".

[9] Of course, by concentrating on the leaders there is an avoidance of the role of CNT rank and file militants in disciplining the Spanish working class and mobilizing for the war effort.

[10] See Paul Mattick, 'The Barricades Must be Torn Down'.

[11] Leftism, as a descriptive and derogatory term for ideological positions and practices that present themselves as oppositional but are actually within bourgeois politics, is a useful shorthand. However, its use as an explanation for the failure of movements tends to the dogmatic assumption that somebody/we already possess the correct 'non-leftist politics' and the problem is simply getting them across. (See also footnote 30 in the review article, 'From Operaismo to "Autonomist Marxism"', in this issue.)

[12] See 'The Proletariat as Subject and as Representation' in The Society of the Spectacle. Also making the point that one must "distinguish between workers' practice and workers ideology" and relating directly to TC's arguments is the Troploin text 'To Work or not to Work: Is that the Question?'

[13] See the account of the significance of the mass strike in Philippe Bourrinet's article 'The Workers' Councils in the Theory of the Dutch-German Communist Left'.

[14] The most significant tendency were the Friends of Durruti - see The Friends of Durruti Group: 1937-1939 by Agustin Guillamon (AK Press 1996).

[15] See Martin Glaberman, Wartime Strikes (Detroit: Bewick Editions, 1980).

[16] The ultra-left is certainly not the only point of break. Well before the first world war, social democracy had already produced groups like the 'Young People' in Germany and the SPGB in Britain; later, anarcho-syndicalism produced the Friends of Durruti Group. Trotskyism has produced numerous breakaways, such as the followers of Munis, Socialism or Barbarism, the Johnson-Forrest tendency; Italian Marxist-Leninism produced operaismo/autonomist Marxism and so on. However, while many of these are often also linked with upsurges in the class struggle, none were connected to something as international, deep and obviously threatening to capitalism as that wave of struggle which perhaps peaked in 1919 and which is irretrievably associated with the 1917 Russian Revolution. Also, it is no accident that many of the tendencies emerging later in the twentieth century find themselves moving towards, and labelled by their previous comrades, as ultra-leftism.

[17] The first congress had not really included any foreign communists.

[18] The most orthodox followers of Bordiga supported participation in trade unions and saw a progressive - if bourgeois - role for third-world nationalism. Interestingly, many of those coming from the Italian Left have tended towards the German/Dutch ultra-left positions on these issues. Bilan, the Italian Left grouping in exile in France in the thirties, started questioning involvement in unions and the idea of any progressive role for nationalism. Two main offshoots of the Italian Left - the ICC (which claims the Bilan tradition) and the IBRP (whose main member is Battaglia Comunista, a group formed in a significant split from orthodox Bordigism in 1953), while maintaining a strong 'Italian Left' belief in the party have moved to anti-union and anti-national liberation positions historically closer to the German/Dutch Left.

[19] See the Antagonism pamphlet Bordiga versus Pannekoek. It is important to see that, on inspection, there are elements in the Italian Left conception of the party that differ from that of Lenin and 'Leninists'. Also, as we see with anarchist and council communist groups, the rejection of the term 'party' does not mean that a group or tendency escapes its problems. For a discussion; again see the Antagonism pamphlet and also Camatte's Origin and Function of the Party Form.

[20] The main place we have dealt with this history was in Part III of our Russia article, Aufheben 8 (1999). For excellent accounts of these two wings of the historic ultra-left see The Italian Left and The Dutch German Left, published by the ICC. The books were both written by Philippe Bourrinet who has since left the organization we imagine for good reasons. His own revised editions can be found at

[21] That is, a policy of using parliament as a revolutionary tribunal to denounce parliament and the capitalist system.

[22] This is perhaps compounded in Britain and America where many moving towards ultra-left politics do so via anarchism which has always had a great tendency to define itself against the 'trots' or the 'marxists'.

[23] To pick an example from the British context, the largest leftist group, the SWP, early on distinguished itself from mainstream Trotskyism by adopting a state capitalist line on the USSR. However, on just about every other issue, and in how it relates itself to the 'labour movement', it has conducted itself in exceptionally moderate and even centrist ways. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Maoist and Third Worldist leftist groups will support Stalinist and bureaucratic regimes elsewhere, while opposing the official labour movement - Labour party and Trade Unions. Individuals can be just as contradictory.

[24] One can, for example, identify with the Dutch-German Left and dismiss Bordiga as a rigid, or at best principled, Leninist; or identify with Bordiga, and see the council communist ultra-left as syndicalist.

[25] To do something we don't often do - quote Engels - "Communism is not a doctrine but a movement springing from facts rather than principles. Communists presuppose not such and such a philosophy but all past history and, above all, its actual and effective results in the civilized countries.... In so far as communism is a theory, it is the theoretical expression of the situation of the proletariat in its struggle and the theoretical summary of the conditions of the liberation of the proletariat." ('The Communists and Karl Heinzen', cited in 'On Organisation' in J. Camatte, This World we Must Leave).

[26] See John Holloway's take of this undeveloped point in Change the World Without Taking Power (Pluto Press, 2002), pp. 80-88.

[27] See Aufheben 1 (Autumn 1992).

[28] We are largely writing this from what has been translated by them; TC and others could tell the story more fully, though probably in a more partisan way - for example, their remark that Dauvé was "trying to spice up the ultra-left with an injection of Bordigism".

[29] See R. Gregoire & F. Perlman's (1969) Worker-Student Action Committees France May '68.

[30] That such modern ultra-left currents existed in France was partly a product of the fact that exiles from both wings had taken up residence there in the '20s and '30s. Indeed, the Italian left exiles group Bilan had done considerable theoretical work. See Bourrinet's The Italian Left and The Dutch-German Left, op. cit.

[31] Informations et Correspondence Ouvrières (Workers' News and Correspondence) developed from Informations Liasons Ouvrières (ILO) which parted from S ou B in 1958 when Castoriadis/Chalieu took the latter in a more 'Leninist' direction. (ICO, un Point de Vue). There is a pamphlet on it by a leading participant Henri Simon whose group Echanges continues the tradition. He provides a short account in Red and Black Notes, 5.

[32] See The Veritable Split in the Situationist International and late documents in Ken Knabb's Situationist International Anthology (Bureau of Public Secrets).

[33] Some examples are Camatte and Invariance, Dauvé and Mouvement Communiste, and other groups that "of which," as Bordiga would say, "- with great pleasure - we do not know the names and personalities", such as Négation and the Organization des Jeunes Travailleurs Révolutionnaires, Communism: a World without Money.

[34] These developments are described nicely in the American translator's introduction to the 'Barrot' text 'Critique of the Situationist International' in What is Situationism?, ed. S. Home (AK Press, 1996), pp. 53-60.

[35] The collections 'Bordiga and the Passion for Communism' and 'Espece Humaine et Crout Terrestre et autres Articles' give a more interesting picture than the selection one encounters through the orthodox left communist press.

[36] Another text that expresses the critique of self-management is Négation's Lip and the Self-Managed Counter Revolution (Detroit: Black and Red).

[37] The International Communist Current, known in the UK through their organ World Revolution.

[38] Goldner's 'Remaking of the American Working Class', while suggesting interesting perspectives on many issues, the economic analysis Goldner attempts to ground them in is based on a fatally flawed misreading of Marx.

[39] For example we can agree with TC that one would not want to follow Camatte in rejecting class. As the English publisher of the Invariance texts, Capital and Community: The Results of the Immediate Process of Production and the Economic Work of Marx writes: "it is important to understand how class has been transformed, rather than to abandon class analysis."

[40] For the distinction, see Marx's 'Results of the Immediate Process of Production', Appendix to the Penguin edition of Capital, vol. 1, p. 1019.

[41] Bourgeois thought is not just the thought of the bourgeoisie or other supporters of capitalism; rather it is the categories of thought which express correctly the real appearances of capitalist social forms but do not grasp them as appearances, instead taking these categories positively, affirmatively. Just as the appearance of capital as things (money, machines etc.) and us as separate bourgeois individuals is a real moment produced through capitalist social relations but covering the real flow of life captured as the process of value - alienated labour - our attempts to grasp this world generally reproduce rigid categories of separate subject and object and do not get behind the appearances. The difficulty of TC's writing may we think be a consequence their attempt to resist slipping into fetishized forms of thought which Marxism, as an positivistic ideology based on Marx's insights but distorted back into bourgeois limits, has so often fallen into.

[42] (Translators' note:) Immigrants without legal documentation.

[43] The issues in which these articles were originally published are now out of print but are available on the Aufheben website.

[44] (Translator's note:) 'A propos du texte 'Sur la décadence de Aufheben' appeared (in French) in Théorie Communiste, 15.

[45] To be fair, this point is from a place in the text where we are explaining and acknowledging good points in Radical Chains' perspective.



15 years 7 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Blackhawk on October 28, 2008

"[18] The most orthodox followers of Bordiga supported participation in trade unions and saw a progressive - if bourgeois - role for third-world nationalism. Interestingly, many of those coming from the Italian Left have tended towards the German/Dutch ultra-left positions on these issues. Bilan, the Italian Left grouping in exile in France in the thirties, started questioning involvement in unions and the idea of any progressive role for nationalism. Two main offshoots of the Italian Left - the ICC (which claims the Bilan tradition) and the IBRP (whose main member is Battaglia Comunista, a group formed in a significant split from orthodox Bordigism in 1953), while maintaining a strong 'Italian Left' belief in the party have moved to anti-union and anti-national liberation positions historically closer to the German/Dutch Left."

Contrary to this footnote, Battaglia Comunista was not formed in any split with Bordigists. Bourrinet's History of the Italian Communist Left contradicts this, not to mention the Prometeo archives themselves. The journal Prometeo and Battaglia Comunista, the paper with it were founded 1943-45. Bordiga's "International Communist Party" was formed in 1952. Militants of Prometeo and Battaglia Comunista have always maintained that they are not "Bordigists". The "Internationalist Communist Party" as it was formed in that period from 1943-45 in Italy was the largest formation of the Communist-Left since the KAPD. What happened after Bordiga's period of house arrest and withdrawal from political activity from 1926 to 1946, was that Bordiga never quite approved of the new Partito Comunista Internazionalista so he never joined it. Between 1946 and 1952 he wrote articles for Prometeo until he felt it necessary to return back to the political positions from which the PCInt and the group around Prometeo had distanced themselves. I think in this respect that the history of this tendency, not treated with honesty, serves as an excuse for a politically obtuse analysis and the misrepresentation of others ideas. To put things in perspective Bilan was a tiny review, an even smaller offshoot of a small political tendency. Prometeo was the journal published on and off, that was the central organ of International Bureau of the Fractions of the Communist Left and later the central organ of the Internationalist Communist Party.

As far as I know the Italian left, the larger Communist-Left in general, had fairly consistent views on nationalism and so-called "national liberation" movements. A few exceptions to this arose as a result of Bordiga's late political development and the splits that came out of his International Communist Party from 1964 to 1982 (more or less for the main Bordigist groups) which reflected more the political weight of "national liberation" movements of that time.

The term "ultra-left" says more about those who use it than those it is supposed to describe. It indicates a centrist position.


15 years 7 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by davidbroder on October 28, 2008

Some thoughts by Henri Simon on the question of workers' self-management, in a letter to The Commune: