Everlasting Classics Versus The Living Dead

Everlasting Classics Versus The Living Dead

"The crisis of politics leads to a crisis of the “communist programme” from the very moment the communization of society can no longer be conceived of as the application of a “programme” that would be in line with the historical needs of the proletariat, but which would require its ratification or approval as a result of its simultaneously external character in regard to its being and its real activity."


The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language.

Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

[…] 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.

Jacques Camatte “Against Domestication” (1973)

In 1962 the Situationist International called for a re-examination of the classical workers’ movement “without any illusions, particularly without any illusions regarding its various political and pseudo-theoretical heirs, for all they have inherited is its failure”. Thus, it might not be altogether too unreasonable reasonable to expect that, by now, at least a few thorough and disillusioned studies might have emerged from the ranks of contemporary S.I stalwarts regarding the social upheavals of the 1968-1978 period in order to help the public to distinguish clearly between the dead and the living as pertains to that specific period of the (fairly) recent past. Among other goals, this hypothetical research project ought to have aimed at identifying the handful of extraordinary groups and individuals who, back in the day, struck off all superstitions concerning the past and committed themselves to the task of critically reactivating and transforming the legacy of the heretical communist left of the 1917-1936 period, as opposed to those who chose instead to recycle that legacy in order to update their ideology and keep it within the most “classical” parameters possible.

The French group Négation’s text, “The Proletariat as Destroyer of Work” (1972), is an exceptional document that clearly belongs to the former of those two categories. Hence, it not only manages to serenely separate itself from its past, but to this day remains an extraordinary settling of scores with all manner of current and future candidates to perpetuate it. However, the exception proves the rule, and it is a general rule of (pre)history that exceptions of this nature do not go unpunished, which explains the paradox that right after being published, such a visionary and vigorous text was to be buried under a thick and lasting cloak of silence.
As proof that neither Négation nor the more general theoretical contributions of the milieu it belonged to went entirely unnoticed back in the day, we might point out that another extraordinary text by this group, Lip and the self-managed counterrevolution, was translated and published by Black & Red (Detroit) in 1975. This was preceded by Black & Red’s edition of Eclipse and Re-emergence of the Communist Movement (Gilles Dauvé and François Martin) and of The Wandering of Humanity (Jacques Camatte) in 1974. The publication, a few years later, of two articles (“The Remaking of the American Working Class” [1981] and “Communism is the Material Human Community: Amadeo Bordiga Today ” [1991]) in which Loren Goldner pores over Négation’s 1972 text and congratulates its authors, might be considered as further confirmation.
Indeed, in his first article, after recounting that

[…] the very rich discussion among the ultra-left currents in France in the 1968-1973 period […]
also resurrected value in order to insist, rightly, that communism was neither “nationalized property” nor “workers’ control of production”, but the positive supersession of commodity production and all its categories: value, wage labor, capital, the proletariat as a social relationship, all grasped as an integral whole. But this discussion, for all its richness (we are thinking of the texts of Invariance in the 1968-1972 period, of Mouvement Communiste, Negation, the International Communist Current in the same period) gradually dissipated itself in long dissertations on Value and the Self-Dissolution of the Proletariat without, except in a few cases, approaching the problematic of the total capital/expanded reproduction/credit or posing it.

Goldner ends the paragraph by referring to a footnote in which he explicitly mentions as “an exception to this tendency the excellent pamphlet of the French group Négation entitled ‘Lip, or the self-managed counterrevolution’”.

In the second article —and we now get to the nitty-gritty of the compliments he bestows on the “neo-Bordigists”— Goldner points out that “all of the French currents put at center stage a text of Marx which, in the long run, may be more important than all the other new material that started to come to light in the 1950’s and 1960’s: the so-called ‘Unpublished Sixth Chapter’ of Vol. I of ‘Capital’”. And again, just a few lines further on, he mentions Négation and emphasises that, according to this group, capitalism, in passing from the stage of formal to real domination “de-substantiates the worker to leave only the proletarian” (A distinction involving a multitude of consequences, among which “The Proletariat as Destroyer of Work” mentions the huge increase in the ranks of the permanently unemployed in the U.S. —most of them African Americans— as a consequence of generalised automation in industry.)

It is no secret that the author of this novel periodisation of both capitalism and the history of the workers’ movement was Jacques Camatte. According to Goldner, “for the first time, in my experience, it became possible to connect 20th century working-class history not merely to bureaucracy but to the shifting nature of capital accumulation that produced and required bureaucracy ”. What could be more natural, therefore, than for Loren Goldner —given the ample and fruitful application he has made of this specific contribution of “French Neo-Bordigism” in his extensive and varied body of work— to acknowledge such a debt?
That said, in (neo-orthodox) post-68 “left communist” circles not everyone has been as keen to openly acknowledge the contributions of Camatte and other “neo-Bordigists” —a label, by the way, which Négation would have rejected outright— to the “very rich discussion” regarding the period 1968-1973. Quite the opposite. What is more, on the rare occasions this milieu breaks its stone-cold silence on this matter, it prefers to juggle around secondary and subsequent motivations for its hostility rather than recalling those that truly hit home . It is worth mentioning that Goldner himself has by no means embraced the more controversial theses that both Camatte and Négation derived from the new periodization, nor has he ever ventured to refute the alleged “mistakes” they would contain. Perhaps even more revealing is that his moderate defence of Camatte’s “early work” seems utterly incapable of assuaging the outraged indignation of certain activists, who suspect —confusedly but quite rightly— that regardless of how “early” that work may be, it still undermines essential postulates of the “ruling revolutionary ideology” in depth.

Let us examine, then, without further ado, some of the corollaries —so unspeakably awkward and unacceptable to some quarters— contained within the new paradigm promoted by Camatte and Co.
The first one is that the main vector in the transition from the prevalence of absolute surplus value extraction in capitalist accumulation (formal domination) to the prevalence of relative surplus value extraction (real domination) was none other than the activity of the working class in defence of its own interests. In other words, despite what their protagonists may have believed and the (intensely) rosy hue with which revolutionary ideology usually depicts the classical workers’ movement —including its most “glorious” moments and those richest in “lessons”—, in the final analysis, this movement turned out to be an internal moment of capitalist development itself, a conclusion which sounds the death knell for the myth according to which the worker’s movement supposedly “betrayed” its true purpose for reasons somehow foreign to its own inherent dynamic.

The transition from one phase to another not only entailed a gigantic increase in the organic composition of capital and the consequent need for “scientific management”; the resulting technological leap and the intensification of labour also required more sophisticated and internalised means of discipline, as well as the concomitant need to mass produce everything related to the reproduction of the labour force (consumer goods, household chores, healthcare, leisure activities). It was, therefore, a complete social overhaul that also required the progressive integration or elimination of pre-capitalist sectors.
This first corollary is the easiest one to accept —and the most difficult one to refute— for a fraction of the new “communist left” born in the early and late 1970s (i.e. Loren Goldner or Internationalist Perspective). However, it is rejected outright —explicitly or not— by its largest and most militant sector, which senses that beyond the demystification of the historical role of the workers’ movement only further catastrophes may lie in store. For example:

What the concept of the transition from formal to real domination lacks is a compelling political vision, a clear perspective on the necessity of revolution, for communism now. (Mac Intosh, The Political Need for a Conception of Decadence, Internationalist Perspective 44)

Indeed, the next corollary, instead of constituting some form of new departure concerning capitalism’s “mortal crisis”, heralds the mortal crisis of the workers’ movement —both “classical” and “new”— which was just beginning to make itself felt back then. The fully capitalist configuration of the labour process and the integration of the reproduction of the labour force make everything which, under formal domination, turned the condition of the working classes into something to be “emancipated” from capital disappear (which does not mean —at least according to Négation’s conception— that the antagonistic nature of capitalist social relations themselves disappears or becomes diluted, on the contrary). Therefore, and given that under real domination the negation of the proletarian condition represents the only possible overcoming of capitalism, every notion of such an overcoming based on the assertion of a “working class community” pitted against a “parasitic” ruling class, and the subsequent seizure of the means of production by the producers is also thrown into crisis. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the widespread “refusal of work” and the resulting forms of struggle were already hinting at the fact that it had become impossible to go on picturing the revolutionary process as a unilateral opposition between “them” and
“us” (clues of which could be found both in the outcome of May 68 and of the Italian movement of 1977) .
The third and final corollary of the penetration of all spheres of existence by the law of value is the crisis of politics. Under formal domination, antagonisms between classes which represented rival modes of production —not to mention the existence of large numbers of small independent producers— transformed politics into a necessary form of mediating class conflict. For the working class, still in the infancy of its development, it was both possible and necessary to participate in this sphere in order to foster alliances and protect its own interests, and “working class” politics and unionism eventually built a genuine and autonomous “parallel society” within capitalist society.

Once the transition to real domination has been carried out, value in process, now capable of organising the existence of the “material community” on its own, displaces politics as a source of social cohesion; the former survives, basically, as a superficial form of social integration and alternation in power at the same time that the consumers of ideology recede before the ideologies of consumerism. During the “transitional period”, the workers’ movement progressively loses its former autonomy as its organizations are integrated into the machinery of the state, while the weight of the political sphere continually declines in the face of the constant expansion of the spheres of mass sports, the film industry, scheduled leisure, “popular” music, etc.

Since 1968 and the “return of social revolution”, the crisis of politics confronted the post-68 “communist left” with two intimately related problems which it cannot even pose correctly without beginning to renounce itself.
On the one hand, given that it still conceives communist revolution in the perspective of formal domination —as a process of political unification of the proletariat leading up to the seizure of power and the implementation of a programme —, it continues to believe in the need for a “a programmatically-armed militant stratum” whose mission would be, if not to become a hegemonic political organization just in time for its date with “revolution”, at least to transform its “consciousness” into the dominant revolutionary consciousness. This induces it to periodically fall prey to the illusion that social movements that do not manage to go beyond the sphere of politics (no matter how many “radical” moments they may contain) are somehow destined to flow into communist revolution, resulting in astounding flops which “revolutionary theory” cannot explain satisfactorily and from which it is unable to draw any other conclusion than “we’ll have to do better next time”.

On the other hand, under real domination any organization that does not contribute direct or indirectly to the valorisation process soon finds itself confronting the dilemma of either adopting practices that will allow it to survive and thrive (if need be, by merging with the most successful ventures in its field) or stagnating in irrelevance until it folds. Should a political crisis of the system require it —as we have seen in recent years— the demand for greater “radicalism” is quickly catered to, either by the founding of new organizations or the radicalization of those already in existence (or both). Truly superfluous political and trade union groupings, however, can only perpetuate themselves as rackets, using the same general techniques of those who “make it” but with more specifically sectarian features, such as mythical narratives and messianic programmes destined to bolster the ideological enthusiasm of the rank and file, foster competition with other groups within the same “milieu”, isolate “its” audience from noxious outside influences and establish scapegoats in order to unleash purges when needed.

In the specific case of the post-68 “communist left”, however, its utter inability to seriously deal with these two “blind spots” of its being without signing its own death warrant is merely the flipside of its refusal, back in the day, to embrace certain theses, which were explained with crystal-clear clarity, among others, by Jacques Camatte and the Négation group:

We must say right away that when the proletariat expresses itself as a class, it constitutes, in its immediately destructive dimension, the positive refusal of the material community and of all its forms of organization. […] The crucial moment of this manifestation is […] the refusal […] to accept any split between decision and action, and hence, the split between being and thought upon which the possibility of a political direction based on the mechanism of direct democracy was built in the past (cf. soviets or councils) or, more generally, upon which the mechanism of democratic-despotic representation within the old art of organizing society from outside was founded: politics. […]

Any formal party is no more than an organization quickly reabsorbed as a racket. The historical party can only be realised by the proletarian movement constituting itself as a class. […] All other conceptions of the party’s foundation, such as that founded on the theory of consciousness coming from outside, rest on the implicit negation of the proposition that the proletariat will realise theory. (Jacques Camatte, “Transition”, 1969)

F. Corriente

June 2017

Posted By

Apr 25 2021 16:12


  • "Once the transition to real domination has been carried out, value in process, now capable of organising the existence of the “material community” on its own, displaces politics as a source of social cohesion."

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May 1 2021 13:44

I would be interested in learning more about the relationship between the Negation group and Camatte, who seem to share many ideas in the early 70s. Was this a kind of parallel development or were they in discussion with each other?

May 6 2021 13:16

My guess is that Camatte influenced a whole lot of people from '68 till '73, when he abandoned both the theory of the proletariat ans the theory of value (that includes Dauvé/Barrot's early work, although he -and others- seems to have never acknowledged that to the extent it deserves). I'm quite sure there were contacts until the end of the '68 wave in '73. Around that time -i.e. the 'oil crisis'- many groups (Négation being just one of them) folded and the 'refusal of work' started to look a little 'old hat'. Incidentally, that's when the major Neo-Left Com outfits started to come into being, i.e., when the revolutionary élan was subsiding. Of course, they weren't interested in saying much about Camatte, Négation the S.I., etc. other than denouncing them as 'modernists' and 'petty-bourgeois.

May 6 2021 09:20

In any case, you could ask plenty of people who were around at the time: Loren Goldner, ex members of Solidarity, Roland Simon, Bruno Astarian, Dauvé... all of them could shed some light on this matter...

May 12 2021 19:47

Thanks for responding. I was around at the time myself, an ex-member of Solidarity and a “neo Left Com” (still am). What we of that persuasion took from the 1968-73 wave of class movements was a conviction that the working class had not disappeared, was still the revolutionary class in bourgeois society and still had to struggle for its own interests as a class. Camatte’s abandonment of the “theory of the proletariat” in the wake of the 68-73 seemed to us to draw entirely the wrong conclusions from that whole experience. I haven’t changed my mind on that, although I do think a more thorough-going historical critique of the trajectory of Camatte and others remains a very worthwhile project.