2. The Mythology of the Proletariat

Submitted by libcom on July 28, 2005

Against Domestication 2.

The Mythology of the Proletariat

With the advent of May/June '68 everything changed and everything has kept on changing ever since. This is why it is not possible to understand the lycée insurrection of 1973 (discussed below) and its possible potential except in relation to this earlier movement.

According to our analysis of it, the activity of May/June '68 was clear evidence that revolution had positively re-emerged, signifying the beginning of a new revolutionary cycle. But our argument here proceeded according to a classist analysis : thus we went on to declare that the May movement would result in the proletariat being recalled to its class base. More than this, we found in the events of that period confirmation of our belief that the revolution would follow a course of development along lines laid down by Marx. But in point of fact, the first classes to rise up in 1968 were the social strata closest to the established society, made up of people whose objective interests were closely aligned with those of the state. The oppressed classes followed on later, and it was they who radically resolved the contradictions that the other social strata wanted only to reform. Now the course of development followed by the English and French revolutions provided the underlying substance from which Marx's thought was moulded. Thus in the case of the French revolution, the nobility intervened in the situation in the very early stages, this being the famous nobles' revolt which took place some years before 1789, which picked up and aided the struggle of he bourgeoisie (at the same time preparing the way for enlightened despotism). There then followed the bourgeois strata less tied to the state, which formed, as Kautsky remarked, a kind of intelligentsia. Only then, with the failure of reform, the internal collapse of the system and the fall of the monarchy, were the peasants and artisans drawn in (the fourth estate, the future proletariat), and it was they who created the final decisive break and ensured that there would be no turning back. Without them, the revolution, in as much as it involved a change in the mode of production, would have taken much longer. In Russia there was similar pattern of development. The suggestion here is that those who are most oppressed and have the greatest objective interest in rebelling -- and who form, according to some, the true revolutionary class -- can only in fact bring themselves into movement during a period when there has already been a rupture at the core of society, and the state has been considerably weakened. Out of the turmoil there begins to emerge a new perspective, if only through the realization that life is not going to continue as before, that it has become necessary to find some other way. This process is one of those elements that gives every revolution a character that is not strictly classist. It will be more accentuated in the case of the communist revolution, because it won't be the activity of one class only, but of humanity rising up against capital.

At the centre of what we at one time ventured to call the universal class, or more simply humanity (for both are now the slaves of capital), there are social strata which exist in very close affinity with capital, (i.e. the new middle classes and the students) who are rebelling against the system. They see themselves as distinct strata in society to the extent that they claim to be able to detonate a movement which will revolutionize the proletariat and set it in motion -- but this is just a caricature of revolution, dragged out for the occasion dressed up in all its old regalia awkwardly going through the same old motions.

The classist analysis which we adopted originally could never do more than interpret real events. The same shortcoming affected the participants of May '68 and made it possible for them to perceive themselves according to the old schemas. It is becoming increasingly obvious that these active participants were men and women who were personally and very intimately involved in the life and functioning of capital, and more especially were having to justify and maintain its representation, [6] who then went into revolt against it. But their revolt is completely recuperable as long as it moves on the worn out road of class struggle which aspires to awaken the proletariat and make it accomplish its mission.

Here we meet a clear impasse. The role of the proletariat has been to destroy the capitalist mode of production in order to liberate the productive forces imprisoned within it : communism was to begin only after this action was accomplished. But far from imprisoning the productive forces, capitalism raises them to new heights, because they exist for the benefit of capital, not humanity. The proletariat therefore, is superfluous. The reversal referred to just now, whereby the productive forces are liberated by capital, rather than by the proletariat, which has been made possible thanks to the development of science, is a development in parallel with the domestication of human beings. Their domestication is their acceptance of the development of capital as theorized by Marxism, which is itself the arch-defender of the growth of productive forces. In the course of this development, the proletariat as producer of surplus value has been denied even this function by the generalization of wage labour and the destruction of any possible distinction between productive and unproductive work. The once revered proletariat has now become the strongest upholder of the capitalist mode of production. What does the proletariat want ? And those who speak in the name of the proletariat and happily venerate its name -- what do they want ? If it is full employment and self-management, this would only ensure the permanent continuity of the capitalist mode of production since it has now become humanized. The left all believe that the process of production, being rationality in action, only needs to be made to function for human needs. But this rationality is capital itself.

The mythology of the proletariat accounts for how the "populism" of May '68, as we called it, became "proletarianism". People started to say : "We must go to the proletariat, revive its fighting spirit, summon up its capacities for self-sacrifice and then it can kick out the evil bosses and follow the other 'proletarians' down the road to revolution."

May '68 ushered in a period of great scorn and confusion. People were scornful of themselves because they weren't "proletarian", and they scorned each other for the same reason, whereas they were all confused about the proletariat, the class that had always been considered potentially revolutionary. There is no other way to explain the impasse encountered by the movement which formed itself in opposition to the established society. This impasse did not however become clear all at once, because in the enthusiasm which followed May '68 the movement of opposition took on a certain life of its own, and the essential questions were allowed to remain on the sidelines. But not only this, the shock of May '68 caused a revival and a re-emergence of the currents of the workers movement which had up to then been held in great disdain by the established parties and consigned to oblivion : the council movement in all its variants, the old German Communist Workers Party (KAPD), the ideas of individuals like Lukacs and Korsch, and so on. This resurrection of the past was a sign that people had not grasped directly the reality of the situation, and that the situation itself was unable to engender new forms of struggle and other theoretical approaches. Nevertheless, to intellectually retrace that path already so well travelled is even still a form of revolt, because it won't bow to the tyranny of what has simply "happened". It can moreover be a starting point in finding out about the origins of the wandering of humanity, and a first step in confronting humanity's fate which is to have been excluded from its own human context and condemned to the productivist sewer.

We were speaking earlier of an "impasse". As an image it is not as suggestive as we would like, but it is nevertheless the heart of the matter. It is like a wall which stands in front of all the different groups of this vast current in society, and this wall is the proletariat and its representation. [7] Militants go from one group to another, and as they do so they "change" ideology, dragging with them each time the same load of intransigence and sectarianism. A few of them manage, extremely large trajectories, going from Leninism to situationism, to rediscover neo-bolshevism and then passing to councilism. They all come up against this wall and are thrown back further in some cases than in others. The wall is an effective barrier against any possible theoretical and practical combination. (In Germany you can even come across antiauthoritarian trotskyists, Korschist trotskyists, etc.)

Admittedly, within these groups, just as with certain individuals, there are aspects which are far from negative, since a certain number of things have been properly understood; but even this understanding is deformed by the jack-of-all-trades mentality which is the spiritual complement of coming together in a groupscule.

In previous articles [8] it has been clearly shown that it is not possible to find the key to the representation of the proletariat without first calling into question the Marxist conception of the development of the productive forces, the law of value, and so on. Yet the proletariat is made into a fetish, and because it raises such strong ethical and practical implications, it is still the one element which weighs most heavily on the consciousness of revolutionaries. But once this fetish is challenged and seen for what it is, then the whole theoretical/ ideological edifice just collapses in confusion. And yet there still seems to be this unspoken assumption that each individual must be attached to a group and be identified as a part of it in order to have the security and strength to face the enemy. There is the fear of being alone -- accompanied nonetheless by a genuine realization that it is necessary to join together to destroy capitalism -- but there is also the fear of individuality, [9] an inability to confront in an autonomous way the fundamental questions of our period. It is another manifestation of the domestication of human beings suffering from the disease of dependency.


[6] We are speaking here of technicians, intellectuals, politicians and economists, like the members of the Club of Rome, Mansholt, Dumont, Laborit etc.

[7] Human beings are not constantly immersed in nature; existence is not always at one with essence, nor being with consciousness, and so on. This separation brings into being the need for representation. Once time is perceived as irreversible, the subject of the past is seen as distinct from the subject of the present, and thus memory begins to assume a determining role. It is here that representation interposes itself in order to provide a mediation. From such an understanding, the way is open to a re-examination of philosophy and science, a task which will have to be undertaken someday. Perhaps some readers may have been drawn to similar ideas (which are actually different because they leave aside the importance of representation in social contexts) in the work of Cardan and the social-imaginary, the situationists and the spectacle, and in the area of scholarship, Foucault's analysis of representation in the sixteenth century (which we took up in a study of the democratic mystification). We would like to clarify our own position on this : we employ the term "representation" in the same way as Marx did (vorstellung) in order to indicate, for example, that value must be represented in a price. In "A propos du capital" (Invariance ser. III, no. 1), we discussed very briefly the way capital becomes representation, which then becomes autonomous, and how it can then only exist through being accepted and recognized by everyone as real. This is why people have now had to interiorize the representation of capital. This whole question of representation is a very important one. From the moment when human beings and nature no longer exist together in an immediate unity (leaving aside for the moment the question of whether an "immediate unity" could ever have been possible), representation becomes necessary. Representation is the human appropriation of reality and our means of communication, and in this sense it can never be abolished : human beings cannot exist in an undifferentiated union with nature. The point is that representation must not be allowed to become autonomous, another expression of alienation.

[8] See the chapter "Growth of Productive Forces : Domestication of Human Beings" in Camatte : The Wandering of Humanity (Detroit, 1975). That work also contains a more detailed discussion of other matters raised in the present article, e.g. the Marxist theory of the proletariat, repressive consciousness etc. [translator's note]

[9] This point was made clear by Norman 0. Brown in Eros and Thanatos. The fear of individuality cannot by itself adequately explain the profound phenomenon whereby human beings are pressed into a mould, obliged to identify themselves as a certain type of being and forced to submerge themselves within a group. People are afraid of themselves because they don't know themselves. Hence there is this need for a norm in order to be able to ward off the "excesses" which can afflict the social order as well as the individual heart. It would seem that the organizations within society are too fragile to allow the free development of human potentialities. With the capitalist mode of production everything is possible as an element of capitalization, but what is possible is all the time only what is permitted; this means that the individual is reduced to a modality of being that is either normal or abnormal; the totality meanwhile exists only within the discourse of capital, where it remains perverted and beyond reach. The fear of individuality comes through very clearly in most of the utopias which depict the triumph of a despotic and egalitarian rationality.