Communization theory and the abolition of the value-form - Internationalist Perspective

Communization theory and the abolition of the value-form - Internationalist Perspective

Text by Mac Intosh in 'Internationalist Perspective' No. 57 (Fall/Winter 2012) on communisation.

A theory of the value-form as the basis for an understanding of the logic of capital, its historical trajectory, and its contradictions, is integrally linked to a theory of communization. Communization is inseparable from the abolition of the value-form and of capital as valorizing value, and its Akkumulationszwang, its compulsion to accumulate, as well as the labor [Arbeit] upon which capital depends. Communization entails the abolition of the proletariat, the class of waged-workers, whose abstract labor is the source of value. Socialism or communism is not the self-affirmation of the proletariat or workers’ power, and the creation of a republic of labor. The development of value-form theory, based largely on the publication of all the manuscripts that Marx had assembled for his critique of political economy, an undertaking that has only been completed over the past several decades, has also transformed the understanding of socialism or communism that existed within the Second and Third Internationals, as well as in the historical communist left (both the German-Dutch and the Italian left, the council communist and the Bordigist traditions).

The young Marx had already anticipated the abolition of labor in communism as early as 1844, in his Paris manuscripts, and his analysis of the alienation of labor, a vision that was perhaps most clearly expressed in his 1845 critique of the German political economist Friedrich List:

“It is one of the greatest misapprehensions to speak of free, human, social labour, of labour without private property. ‘Labour’ by its very nature is unfree, unhuman, unsocial activity, determined by private property and creating private property. Hence the abolition of private property will become a reality only when it is conceived as the abolition of ‘labour’ (an abolition, which of course, has become possible only as a result of labour itself....”1

The concretization of Marx’s path towards a theory of communization in which value, labor, and the proletariat are abolished can be seen in his Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875) in which the theoretical bases for the formation of a unified Social-Democratic Party in Germany, based on a vision of a “free state,” were subjected to a withering criticism, and in which Marx first outlined his conception of a lower and higher stage of communism. For Marx, in the lower stage of communism, “just as it emerges from capitalist society,” still stamped by its structures and social forms,

“the individual producer gets back from society ... exactly what he has given to it.”2

In short, the worker, after deductions for the social funds and expansion of the productive forces, receives the full value of his/her labor:

“Clearly, the same principle is at work here as that which regulates the exchange of commodities as far as this is an exchange of equal values. ... a given amount of labour in one form is exchanged for the same amount in another.”3

For Marx, then, the value-form will preside over both production and distribution in the lower stage of communism, and only in its higher stage “can society wholly cross the narrow horizon of bourgeois right and inscribe on its banner:

From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs!”4

Communization, then, as the abolition of the value-form in all its modes, would be preceded by a post-capitalist stage in which the law of value still regulated production and consumption. However radical, in the eyes of most socialists, Marx’s prescription was in 1875, today, in a capitalist world where the reproduction of the proletariat is threatened by the capitalist social relation, and the very existence of the value-form, such a vision is completely inadequate.

While Marx did not specify the precise form in which labor-time would determine production and distribution in the lower stage of capitalism, the revolutionary wave that unfolded in 1917 led to the insistence of the Bolsheviks that the dictatorship of the proletariat, whatever its specific political forms, would also be based on the continuation of waged-labor; that the distribution of products to the working class would be via a wage and money. It is here, that a debate arose within the historical communist left, different from the debates over the question of party or workers councils as the organ of the dictatorship of the proletariat, a debate in which Amadeo Bordiga insisted – against Lenin and Trotsky – that the continued existence of wages and money was a mortal threat to the proletariat, and would reproduce capitalist social relations. Two important documents of the historical communist left over the period between 1930-1970, grappled with the question of the value-form and communist production and distribution: The Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution, a collective text of the GIK (the German-Dutch left) published in 1930, with an important “Introduction” by Paul Mattick to its republication in 1970, and Jacques Camatte’s Capital and Community, written in the aftermath of ’68, within the political orbit of the Italian left (Bordigism).5

The Fundamental Principles advanced the idea that communist production and distribution would be based on labor-time accounting (the average socially necessary labor time), with the distribution of products to the workers – whose proletarian condition would be universalized – taking place through a system of “labor vouchers” (Empfangsscheinen or bons de travail), strictly based on the number of hours worked. In contrast, then, to the normal working of the capitalist system, where the market allocates labor and determines value through exchange post festum, in communist production and distribution this determination could rationally be determined by labor time as a measure of value without the intermediary of exchange. This, then, was a system, as Mattick acknowledged in his Introduction, in

“which the principle of the exchange of equivalents still prevails,”6

in which, we maintain, the value-form still shapes social being, in which, as Marx, acknowledged in his Critique of the Gotha Programme,

equal right still constantly suffers a bourgeois limitation,”7

and labor itself (travail, Arbeit) remains proletarian labor. Mattick, however, also found the GIK’s text to be outdated in some respects, superseded by the very trajectory of capital itself, by the prodigious development of the productive forces between 1930 and 1970, through which goods and services could be produced in such abundance that

“any calculation of their individual shares of average socially necessary labor time would be superfluous,”8

and humankind might proceed directly to what Marx had called the higher stage of communism.9

Camatte follows Marx in distinguishing a lower, socialist, and a higher stage of communism, and insists “communism cannot be achieved from one day to the next,”10 a position based on Bordiga’s claim that there are three post-capitalist stages: the dictatorship of the proletariat, the stage of socialism, and communism. For Camatte, the valorization of value must immediately cease, which he claims is the task of the dictatorship of the proletariat, yet he acknowledges that everyone has to work (“he who does not work, does not eat”), that the proletarian condition must be universalized, that human existence, which in capitalism was mediated by capital, “now is mediated by work.”11 Moreover, Camatte acknowledges that an “economy of time” will continue to regulate what has now become communal production; that all labor will now be reduced to abstract labor,12 and that such labor will retain the form of waged labor under the dictatorship of the proletariat, though

“…the basis of the phenomenon is not the same. In capitalist society, wage labour is a means to avoid restoring the whole of the product to the individual who produced it. In the transitional phase, wage labour is the result of the fact that it is not possible to destroy the market economy from one day to the next.”13

In the lower stage of socialism, the commodity character of labor is expunged, and the worker’s share of the wealth his/her labor has created is distributed through labor vouchers based on the labor time expended by the worker, by the abstract labor, measured in average socially necessary labor time.

At that stage, as Camatte explains,

“...we still have to deal with values and that labour time will always define these values. But since the purpose is no longer to increase labour time, it means that labour time no longer needs to appear under the veil of value in order to assume a social function; it affirms its role immediately.”14

But the removal of the traditional capitalist veil does not eliminate the value-form, or the subjection of humankind to its laws of motion. Indeed, the very reduction of all labor to abstract labor, the very universalization of the proletarian condition and its modes of labor, risks the perpetuation of capital and its social relations. Moreover, that prospect is not removed by Camatte’s insistence that the labor vouchers that the worker will exchange for goods and services cannot be accumulated, are “valid for a limited period and is lost at the end of this period if it is not consumed,”15 thereby preventing a restoration of capitalism. The question is not that of a restoration of capitalism, but rather its continued existence through that of value determined by labor time, and abstract labor, on the bases of which capitalism had never been abolished. For Camatte, it is only at Marx’s higher stage of communism that:

“All forms of value are therefore buried; thus labour no longer has a determined form [abstract labor??], there is no alienation.”16

The question raised by communization theory as it has developed over the past several decades is whether the social imaginary of a period of transition, of lower and higher stages of communism, has not become – at this historical stage of capitalism – one more obstacle to the communist revolution, to communization.17

Communization theory, as it has been articulated by pro-revolutionaries over the past several decades can perhaps be summarized in the following terms, as in an essay by Bruno Astarian:

“Communization does not mean that communism will be established by waving a magic wand. It will be established through a process of struggle, with advances and retreats by the revolution. What it means is that the actions undertaken by the revolutionaries will aim at the abolition of work and of value and now. When the revolution attacks capitalist property, it does not do so in order to vest the proletariat with the ownership of the property that it did not previously own, but in order to put an end to all forms of property immediately.”18

In short, the value-form, and the labor [travail, Arbeit] linked to it, must be abolished by the revolution, not as the culmination of a period of transition, as the historical communist left had maintained. Moreover, while communization is the immediate goal of the revolution, Astarian points out that:

“We must not confuse immediacy with instantaneity. When we say immediacy of communism, we are saying that the goal of the proletarian revolution no longer consists in creating a transitional society, but in directly establishing communism.”19

For me, what is crucial here is not the specific content of the work or activity that must be immediately transformed, e.g. food or clothing, medicine or houses, will need to be produced. What must be immediately abolished is the reduction of that human activity to the abstract labor, and its measurement by socially necessary labor time, that is the historically specific mode in which labor has existed in capitalist society.20 And that, of course, also entails the abolition of a mode of distribution of goods and services by way of labor time, through a form of wage [le salariat] or even labor vouchers. It is in the very course of a revolutionary upheaval, then, and not at the end of a period of transition, that communization occurs. As RS [Roland Simon] in SIC 1, insists:

“The revolution is communisation; it does not have communism as a project and result, but as its very content.”21

Indeed, in the revolution itself, the abolition, not just of capital and labor, but also of the proletariat must occur. This is how BL puts it in SIC 1:

“In this struggle, the seizure of the material means of production cannot be separated from the transformation of proletarians into immediately social individuals: it is one and the same activity, and this identity is brought about by the present form of the contradiction between the proletariat and capital.”22

It is not, then, some variant of utopian thinking that leads me to see communization as integral to the revolutionary upheaval itself, but rather the very logic of capital, its specific historical trajectory, and the nature of the capitalist crisis at the present historical conjuncture: the impossibility of the reproduction of the proletarian condition by capital, as well as the massive and permanent expulsion of proletarian labor from the economy, the creation of a vast planet of slums, and impending ecological catastrophes, all attendant on the perpetuation of the value-form. It is those very real historical and material conditions, which have made communization the immediate task of revolution today.

But what of the abolition of labor, which is integral to most theories of communization? Human activity, as proletarian labor, as abstract labor, as it has historically developed and been instantiated by capitalism, must, in my view, be abolished. Labor in its historical form as waged-labor, and the capitalist social relations in which production and distribution is based on average socially necessary labor time, in all its forms, must be immediately abolished. But anti-labor [anti-travail] must be accompanied by a vision of human activity, praxis, which encompasses the realm of production, freed of historical (including its capitalist) integument. This text is not the place to even begin a detailed theoretical elaboration of that enormous task, but its broad outlines do need to be at least indicated. Communization is not the cessation of production. Quite the contrary! It is the beginning of the self-production of human beings, the auto-production of communist social relations. Human action has not been limited to labor, travail, Arbeit, under the constraint of exploitative class relations. There is a distinction, then, between techné, poiésis, work, on the one hand, and labor on the other; between the labor of the slave, the serf, the proletarian, on the one hand, and the work [oeuvre, Werke] of the social individual, on the other. This is not a mere terminological or linguistic distinction, but rather one of historically distinct modes of human action, qualitatively different modes of the metabolism between humankind and nature. Labor, then, is just one historically specific form of that “metabolism.” It is precisely that set of distinctions, between labor and work, and the possibilities to be created by communization which pro-revolutionaries need to begin to explore: production, work, beyond labor. Some communisateurs, like Bruno Astarian, have begun to examine the complex of issues involved: “Communism will know production, but will not know labor.”23 If communization is not to be seen as simply a version of “Woodstock” on a grand scale, then the implications of Astarian’s claim that there will be “production without productivity” needs to be elaborated.24 “Productivity” is integrally linked to the abstract labor that produces value, while “production” and its objectivations satisfy human needs, bodily, communal, intellectual, and creative. It entails, in my view, at least as a point of departure, that alienation [Entfremdung] is not equated with objectivation, a position that had its basis in a certain reading of Hegel, which still shaped the vision of alienation of the young Marx. Objectivations there will be, but objectivations not subsumed by the value-form.

Communization entails a revolution, in which the abolition of labor, and of the proletariat as a subject of labor, will occur as an integral part of the revolutionary upheaval itself. However, within some quarters of the milieu of communisateurs, a position that harks back to the determinism of traditional Marxism has arisen, a position in which the primordial role of consciousness in communization seems to be ignored. So, in Peter Åstrom’s, “Crisis and Communisation” in SIC 1, his scenario for a revolutionary upheaval attendant on a devastating capitalist crisis, such as the present one, is that the crisis will compel the proletariat to destroy

“... all the conditions which constantly recreate the proletariat as a class. In the end, the proletariat can only fend off capital by negating itself as a value-creating class and at the same time – in one and the same process – producing completely new lives that are incompatible with the reproduction of capital.”25

The failure to speak of consciousness here, and of the very bases for its development, can make it seem as if the proletariat’s response to such a crisis is instinctive, automatic, and determined simply by the depth of the crisis itself; a response that is inevitable. Both the absence of any discussion of consciousness, and the sense of the inevitability of a proletarian response to the crisis, seems to me to be reminiscent of Histomat’s absolute confidence that revolution and the destruction of capitalism has been determined by the laws that preside over the historical process itself. Åstrom himself points to discussion within SIC to the effect that he has put a “... too strong emphasis on proletarians being compelled to act in a certain way.”26 That the “logic” of capital, as a moving contradiction, produces a crisis of reproduction for capital and for the proletariat is not at issue here. What is a tissue is an implicit determinism with respect to a proletarian response, a vision – were it to grow – that would weaken the very prospects both for a renaissance of Marxism, and for a revolutionary upheaval.

Indeed, one imperative for communization theory, in my view, is to link the prospect for the development of a consciousness that can explode the value-form directly to the historically specific modes of labor that capital in its present phase has brought into being. It is there that – to introduce a Blochian concept – the objective-real possibility of communization resides. For Ernst Bloch an objective-real possibility is not mere wishful thinking, but rather the outcome of material conditions that have ripened within the historical process itself, and become manifest.27 The objective-real possibility for the abolition of labor, then, must be sought in the actual historical conditions of the labor processes of capitalist society today, in the modes of labor that modern capitalism has itself created in the service of its compulsion to accumulate.

Mac Intosh.

An earlier version of this article appears on the Internationalist Perspective website.

  • 1. Marx, “Draft of an Article on Friedrich List’s Book Das nationale System der politischen Oekonomie” in Marx/Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 4 (New York: International Publishers, 1975), pp. 278-279.
  • 2. Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme in Karl Marx, The First International and After (Penguin Books), p. 346.
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. Ibid., p. 347
  • 5. While Camatte’s text is largely devoted to the trajectory of the value-form based on a reading of Marx’s unpublished manuscripts (The Grundrisse, and “The Results of the Immediate Process of Production”), its chapter on “Communism and the intermediary phases between capitalism and communism,” like the Fundamental Principles of the GIK, grapples with the issue of communization. Camatte’s treatment of this issue has its own basis in texts by Mitchell (Jehan) in Bilan in the 1930’s, and especially in texts by Bordiga starting from the late 1940’s through the ‘60’s.
  • 6. The Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution, Libcom, p.4.
  • 7. Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, p.346
  • 8. The Fundamental Principles, p.5
  • 9. Mattick’s picture of that abundance seems far too optimistic today, especially in light of decades of “development” based largely on the growth of fictitious capital and financial bubbles, as well as massive ecological destruction, while the reproduction of the proletariat has been violently threatened, and ever-greater masses of workers are being permanently expelled from the production process. While such questions are, indeed, important, they do not preclude a vision of revolution in which communization, understood as the abolition of the value-form and the proletarian labor to which it is yoked, cannot be put off until a higher stage or the completion of a period of transition.
  • 10. Jacques Camatte, Capital and Community (Prism Key Press, 2011), p. 261
  • 11. Ibid., p. 265. In the French original, Camatte’s term is “labor,” Le travail, not work. The distinction is extremely important in considering the nature of the human activity involved and its relationship to the value form.
  • 12. Ibid., p. 272
  • 13. Ibid., 266
  • 14. Ibid., p.279.
  • 15. Ibid., p.288
  • 16. Ibid., pp. 297-298
  • 17. One question that seems to be a diversion, though much ink and paper has been expended in discussing it in the pro-revolutionary milieu, is when communization, as opposed to a period of transition, became an historical possibility for the proletariat. Was communization possible in 1789, in 1848, in 1871, in 1917, in 1936, etc.? Communization did not occur then, and while we can discuss why it did not, the task today is to confront the historical necessity for communization in the present epoch, and the dangers that confront the collective worker in a capitalist world that survives its present crisis.
  • 18. Bruno Astarian, “Communization as a Way Out of the Crisis”, Libcom, p. 1
  • 19. Ibid.
  • 20. Labor extorted from an exploited class is not a trans-historical category. It has appeared in several historically specific modes: slave labor or the labor of a Helot class in Ancient Greece, the labor of serfs in Feudal society, to take but two very different examples, as well as the abstract labor extorted from a wage-working class in capitalist society
  • 21. RS, “The Present Moment”, SIC 1, p. 95
  • 22. BL, “The Suspended Step of Communisation,” SIC 1, pp. 147-148.
  • 23. Bruno Astarian, Le Travail et son Dépassement (Éditions Senonevero, 2001), pp. 175-176
  • 24. Ibid., p. 176
  • 25. Peter Åstrom, “Crisis and Communisation,” SIC 1, p. 35.
  • 26. Ibid., p. 37
  • 27. Bloch develops this concept in his The Principle of Hope (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1986), Volume I, pp. 235-241.


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