Notes on Endnotes
Here’s a brief and partial summary of the five texts that make up ‘Endnotes 1’:
In Dauve’s first text (When Insurrections Die) numerous historical examples are given of various failed revolutions or of embryonic revolutionary potentials which fail to realise themselves. Insofar as explanations are given for such failures they are put forward in the everyday language of human reasons – the proletariat made errors, placed their trust in the state, were betrayed etc..
TC respond to this (in Normative History and the Communist Essence of the Proletariat) by arguing that Dauve hasn’t really answered the question of why these revolutions failed. He has said that the proletariat made such and such an error or put its faith in the state but what is needed is an explanation of these occurrences themselves. From TC’s standpoint the explanations given are not really explanations at all but just descriptions of the manner in which the proletariat failed. As such they are tautological. (“The workers failed and were beaten because they didn’t make the revolution” p.79). Behind this argument is a deeper criticism of Dauve that he has an ahistorical conception of the proletariat as a ready made force that has always (since the eighteenth century) had the potential to realize itself and is just waiting for the correct conjunction of desire, awareness and historical circumstance (“Communism is inscribed once and for all in the nature of the proletariat.” p.83). TC think this is misconceived. There is no pre-given “revolutionary élan”, “proletarian energy” or “communist potential” which could have realised itself through communisation in an earlier epoch. It is only in the current “cycle of struggle” that communisation is a genuine possibility. As such the counterfactuals around which Dauve constructs his version of history (“If only this had happened then this might have happened”) are meaningless. The “this” of communism could not have happened previously.
In Dauve’s first counter-attack (Human, All Too Human) he hints at a determinism in TC’s notion of ‘cycles of struggle’, a determinism which he is at odds with (“The communist revolution is precisely the moment of fusion between the struggle against exploitation and the struggle against alienation. No historical dialectic can deliver this in advance.” P.102) This determinism goes hand in hand with a certain ‘ultimatism’ – a belief in privileged access to the ultimate truth about the world – which Dauve takes as self-evidently misconceived.
Dauve also gives a brief response to the allegation that his version of communist possibility presupposes an ahistorical (‘human’) subject. He points out that it is precisely human potential which capital exploits and which alone has the capability of realising itself through communism (“What the proletarian loses every day is not a strip of some eternal nature, but a force of life, a social capacity that the beast of burden does not have…”p.96)
In their second assault (in Love of Labour? Love of Labour Lost) Dauve and Nesic (henceforth D&N) spend some time trying to counter the idea that previous struggles have failed because proletarians only had the liberation of work, rather than the liberation from work, in their sights. The rationale for this appears to be a belief that TC’s conception of “cycles of struggle”, as well as the SI’s version of history, both commit themselves to the idea that previous proletarian struggles were necessarily limited to the possibility of worker’s self-management. D&N use countless examples to try to dislodge this idea. They argue for instance that in many cases when workers did rebel in the name of work their practice was at odds with their ideology (p.107); that the Russian proletariat did not fail because they subscribed to the myth of liberation through work but rather it was only once they had failed that this myth was able to flourish (p.113); that events in Spain 1936 showed that “another future was in search of itself, and it carried with it the superseding of work as a separate activity” (p.121); that when proletarians took over factories in Argentina to keep them running they only did so because they thought they had “no chance of changing the world” (p.131).
They then turn again to TC’s perceived ‘determinism’, once more criticising their presupposition of a “privileged vantage point” and arguing that if TC believe that previous struggles were compelled to end up as they did “they should be requested to prophesy the future for once” (p.144). They go on to reiterate their position that the possibility of revolution (post 18C) is not tied to any particular historical-economic formation (“the evolution of capital does not take us closer or farther from communism” p.146) and that the proletariat is the subject of revolutionary change rather than an overarching objectified ‘cycle’.
In TC’s final counter-attack on D&N (Much Ado About Nothing) they flesh out their previous critique as well as taking up some of the points made in the intervening texts.
They once more attack D&N for having an “essentialist and invariant” (p.166) conception of the proletariat and communism – a perspective which they think itself is an ideological reflection of a now superseded period of struggle. In place of this TC wish to “historicize the terms of class struggle” (p.158). Proletarians are not ahistorical subjects imposed upon by an external capital which frustrates their potential for living differently. Rather the proletariat is formed and defined by its engagement with capital. There is no “immediately social individual” prior to the struggle of the proletariat against capital, in fact there is no proletariat at all because the proletariat “is its relation to capital and nothing more”. (p.203). This dynamical whole is the relation which determines the potential for revolution, or what type of revolution there is a potential for. In previous cycles it could not give rise to anything more than struggles for workers’ self-management – although it would be wrong to characterize such struggles as a failure of the class, for “the proletariat was strengthened by its identification with work” (p.204) Now, however, communisation is the only path open to proletarian struggle which pushes itself to the limit.
Unsurprisingly TC have a different take on the various historical episodes alluded to by D&N. They reject the idea that in those instances where workers took over factories to maintain production (or at the behest of the party) they only did so out of “sordid necessity” (p.173). One of their objections here is to the false dichotomy between “neutral and purely quantitative activity” (p.180) and activity which reveals the proletariat in a process of communist becoming. Both terms of the dichotomy are ahistorical for TC – both suggestive of a false separation between actuality and possibility (“The defence of physical survival has no more existence in itself, is no more an ahistorical invariant, than is communism ‘in its deep content’”p.180) Likewise they object to D&N’s suggestion that in understanding the true motivation of proletarians apparently co-opted by self-management we need to make a distinction between the workers’ own activity and the official ideology of the organisations representing them. T&C agree that such a move can be made but don’t think it is sufficient in itself, for neither is there an absolute separation between the workers and their organisations (“If we shouldn’t confuse the activity of workers with the activity of organisations and their programmes, it is completely insufficient to satisfy oneself with the distinctions” p.182).
TC also renew their critique of D&N’s counterfactual reasoning. With reference, for example, to D&N’s assertion that in 1917 the choice of the proletariat was between the abolition of wage labour or the perpetuation of exploitation, they argue that “nobody..posed such an opposition” because the radical option “simply did not exist” (p.176). D&N’s suggestion that it could have existed is therefore empty of meaning. This critique is tied up with a defence of their own (TC’s) purported ‘determinism’. TC suggest that D&N are prone to throwing the term “determinist” at “any historical critique which fails to acknowledge the invariant substance” (p.188) of communism and the proletariat. However, say TC, D&N’s own approach is incoherent on the question of determinism, vacillating between “determinism and liberty, necessity and possibility, freedom with a little determinacy, and determinism with a little freedom” (p.191). D&N want to preserve the freedom of the proletariat to realize itself at any moment independent of the development of capital, whilst maintaining that this realization is the ‘historic task’ of the proletariat .In response to D&N’s suggestion that determinists ought to be able to make some prophecies TC then offer up their own challenge:
To all those who say that 1848, 1917, 1968 etc ended up in a way that could have been averted, we have a right to demand that just for once they tell us what made them end up where they did other than by saying that they ended up where they did because they didn’t end up where they could have. Could anything else have happened? We don’t know and we don’t care. The question is meaningless. (p.193)
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In the preface to The Revolution of Everyday Life Vaneigem expressed the hope that “Out of this confusion will one day come formulations capable of firing point blank at our enemies.” Such a hope seems misplaced - as though there could be a perfect formulation which, once comprehended, will detonate the revolution. “The meaning of a word is its use in practice” as a philosopher once said. Yet still we find in communist circles (as elsewhere) the relentless pursuit of the perfect formulation, the desire to ‘understand’ in toto, the wish to settle things once and for all in the realm of theory. And so it is to some degree with this book. Insofar as the pieces are considered as a dialogue between two opposing tendencies (rather than, for example, considering When Insurrections Die as a standalone text) they seem to be on a hiding to nothing with their desire to settle things in the abstract. This is a dialogue that cannot be resolved. The further it progresses, the further removed from reality it becomes, the more diminishing are the returns.
Nevertheless not all participants in this exchange seem equally blameworthy. We might take issue with Dauve for introducing ‘determinism’ into the debate (a term which means nothing in the abstract), and for alluding to ‘ultimatism’ (who doesn’t believe their own outlook to be the correct one - ‘absolutely’ or otherwise?) but the main culprits are clearly TC. It is they who needlessly introduce the philosophical ‘why’ after Dauve has carefully spent 50 or so pages offering an interesting description of past struggles and their failures. It is they too who seek to take the debate down a philosophical cul-de-sac by pulling a few dialectical tricks out of their bag in the hope of gaining some new adherents who might be impressed by such manoeuvres.
Let’s start with the ‘why’ question. Dauve’s list of historical failures may indeed prompt any number of useful ‘why’s from a critical reader. From a certain perspective, perhaps tainted by disillusionment gained from our own participation in various struggles, we might think for instance that there is more to be said about failures of past struggles in terms of other everyday human tendencies. Maybe people got tired, scared, bored, competitive, told lies to themselves or others, whatever. Alternatively we might have the meta intuition that there is something problematic about describing a series of historical events according to an unquestioned assumption that there is something that could have happened (what the author wanted to happen) but which didn’t happen. Alternatively again, we might feel vaguely that there is something problematic with the whole idea of talking about past possibilities. These are all legitimate responses. TC’s trick is to take such intuitions, blur them together in an unprincipled way and then seal the result with their own ideological glue.
Here’s the structure of their argument. Firstly they ask (repeatedly in several places) “why” previous struggles failed. Even here we might be suspicious that they are fetishizing this word too much – as though there was only one sort of answer to the question “why” and one sort of use of the word “because”. However we are basically on board because we can see that there is room for such a question to be asked. Then things start to get confusing. Whilst castigating Dauve for not supplying an answer to the question why (in an as yet undefined sense) they at the same time declare that there can be no such answer to this question. In some passages this is presented as a problem with counterfactual reasoning itself (“Could anything else have happened? We don’t know and we don’t care. The question is meaningless.”). Yet clearly if their objection is at this level of abstraction it is itself meaningless. There’s nothing wrong in talking about past possibilities per se. Suppose I went out in a thunder storm yesterday. I could have got struck by lightning but I didn’t. This way of talking is no more problematic than any other use of language. In fact what TC mean is not that talk of past possibilities is meaningless but that in this particular case there was no such past possibility. There could have been no communising revolution prior to a particular period because the necessary ingredients weren’t present. (‘I couldn’t have got struck by lightening yesterday because there was no thunder storm’). Fair enough. But then why all the bullshit about counterfactuals (repeated also in the introduction – “When we address the question of these failures we cannot resort to ‘what if’ counterfactuals” p.4)? In fact TC’s position is itself dependent on its own counterfactuals – e.g. “if the proletariat had attempted a thoroughgoing communising transformation of the world in an earlier epoch it would have failed.” The only function of TC’s ‘anti-counterfactual’ talk (deliberately or otherwise) is to draw people in by playing on their intuitions that their might be something problematic or incomplete with Dauve’s description of events and suggesting that this can be explained by means of a particular philosophical construct.
Likewise with TC’s recourse to that other philosophical staple the ‘tautology’. It sounds very impressive to accuse Dauve of giving empty explanations of the form “there was no revolution because the revolution didn’t happen” and such flourishes probably win them some acolytes amongst those frustrated with explanations of failure but no revolution. However on any reasonable reading of the term ‘tautology’ it does not seem to apply to Dauve’s texts. Dauve clearly gives reasons for the failures he describes and these reasons are not empty. They take our understanding further. Of course there is always room to ask a further ‘why’ but this is the case with any explanation. Even in physics you can keep asking ‘why’ until you are confronted with the scientific equivalent of “just because!”. What TC really mean is that Dauve doesn’t supply the sort of explanation that they want and which happens to coincide with their take on the world. Again, fair enough – but this has nothing to do with ‘tautologies’.
Some other of TC’s moves are initially more impressive. In several instances they manage to wrench certain terms or ideas out of their fixity and show that what they mean is in flux (in their case according to historical circumstance). Thus they argue that what counts as ‘an activity conducted out of necessity’ is not given and cannot be simplistically counterposed to an ‘actvity which brings communism closer’ (“the defence of physical survival has no more existence in itself, is no more an ahistorical invariant, than is communism ‘in its deep content’”) Likewise, the suggestions that Bolshevik policy was “the accomplishment against them (the proletariat) of their revolution” (p.174) is novel insofar as it plays fast and loose with the idea of ‘revolution’. It shows an awareness that what counts as ‘the same’ is negotiable, not given. Today’s revolution could be equivalent, on some criterion, to yesterday’s counterrevolution.
But such ploys are only useful or enlightening if they aren’t adopted simply so as to replace one fixity with another. TC however are not merely saying that Dauve needs to loosen up his categories a little, be a little more flexible on the question of what historical invariants and variants their might be. Rather they set off their contained dialectical explosions just so as to be able to rigidify things again once they’ve reached their desired description of events. They are not saying “look, can’t you see that from another perspective Bolshevik policy could be viewed as accomplishing all that was possible in proletarian struggles at that time. What counts as ‘revolution’ is not necessarily fixed” They are saying “Bolshevik policy did accomplish all that was possible in proletarian struggles at the time.”, as if the fact that a novel perspective is possible implies that the novel perspective must be true. Moreover this conception of what was possible is itself too rigid, as if ‘communisation’ is itself one thing, a fixed quantity over time. At the very least we want to say here that if ‘communisation’ as TC conceive it of it now was not possible in previous cycles of struggle it must at least have been possible that things could have turned out better than they did. And then….
This consideration takes us to what is perhaps TC’s central critique of D&N – that their (D&N’s) conception of things has as its starting point an ahistorical conception of the proletariat with communism built in waiting to be realised. In fact TC are not completely consistent on this point, for whilst they oppose themselves to the language of realisation (“the history of class struggle is production and not realisation” p.89) and like to imply with their tortuous anti-counterfactual reasoning that ‘if it didn’t happen it couldn’t have happened’, they nevertheless are not immune to driving a wedge in between past actualities and past possibilities themselves (“Self-organisation was not superseded in Argentina but the social struggles pointed beyond themselves to such a supersession” p.165). However we will not dwell on such inconsistencies here.
More important is TC’s attack on the very idea that communism / communisation/ revolution could be an invariant waiting to be realized. To this we want to counter that if this is not an invariant – perhaps the invariant – then what is it that lies behind their communist aspirations? Why do they even care? At the risk of sounding like one of the “delicate souls” they wish to castigate the point surely has to be made that if communism corresponds to nothing invariant on the human side of the proletariat/capital dichotomy then there is little point in hoping or ‘struggling’ for it. If communisation were mere behaviour facilitated by a particular configuration of capital what is it about it that should attract us? What is it that would maintain it once achieved? What is the it that would be maintained? It is true that communist potential is apprehended by different individuals in different ways and so the question of what is ‘the same’ here is open to question. But if there is no common potential then there is no communism. This is not to say that there definitely is such a potential. It may well be that human beings in any ‘cycle of struggle’ are too fundamentally shoddy to create a better world. But the presupposition of any communist effort is that this may not be the case - that there could be a realizable invariant. This is not merely a sentimental point but a logical one. ……………..