Spanish translator's introduction

Submitted by Steven. on January 16, 2013

Translator’s Introduction to the Spanish Edition

“I tell you: the insufficiency of our language is the yardstick of our inertia in our relations with things, which can no longer be transformed when they have lost their meaning” (“Parigi, andata e ritorno”)

At least in Latin America, up until only a few years ago it was still hard to get any information about the great revolutionary wave of the 60s and 70s in Italy. Before the internet, with enough luck one could find some mention of the topic in the Iberian libertarian press, or a reference in well-intentioned but superficial texts like Cohn-Bendit’s La révolte étudiante. But usually one had to settle for the dubious recollections of Toni Negri or, worse yet, of the Stalinist Macciochi. If my memory serves me right, the first serious analyses of the topic available in Spanish were the texts translated by the Archivo Situacionista Hispano in the early nineties. Although the vast majority of them are about the movement of ’68 in France (for example, “Enragés y situacionistas en el movimiento de las ocupaciones”, or “El comienzo de una época”), it was always possible to get a glimpse of the intensity of the movement in Italy by way of one of Gianfranco Sanguinetti’s or Debord’s writings (for example, Debord’s Preface to the 1978 Italian edition of The Society of the Spectacle). During this same era the tedious exegeses of the autonomists began to be disseminated, while, at the same time, the murky spell cast by the folklore of the guerrilla struggle grew more intense, and even today enshrouds the memory of the Red Brigades. And superimposed on this colorful background one may now and then discover the odd paragraph that provides glimpses of such enigmatic and interesting things as “Metropolitan Indians”, “Radio Alice” and a movement that wanted to abolish mental hospitals. Something had undoubtedly taken place over there in Italy.

In the last few years some publishers have made serious efforts to fill this gap. Traficantes de Sueños and Klinamen, for example, have published various books that offer quite a few elements for analysis: La horda de oro. La gran ola creativa y existencial, política y revolucionaria (1968-1977), Los invisibles and The movement of ’77 and The History of Ten Years, to mention a few of them. But the most important book is A Terrorism in Search of Two Authors (Documents of the Revolution in Italy), published by Likiniano Elkartea, which features numerous texts, produced in the heat of the struggles, that provide a clear overview of the most advanced sector of this movement. The essay that follows, Apocalypse and Survival, also addresses the experience of the most radical groups that took part in that revolutionary rising. But unlike the texts compiled by Likiniano, this document was written almost twenty years after those battles in the streets of Italy, when the steamroller of the counterrevolution had reduced a large part of that experience to a pile of ashes and rubble. Of course, even though it is a retrospective balance sheet of a period concerning which the author himself says that it is “already history”, it is by no means the account of someone who is expressing his disappointment or disenchantment.

Apocalypse and Survival, by engaging in an in-depth analysis of the relation between theory and practice during this era, expresses a dimension that is almost always passed over by radical critique: the fact that, in periods of intense revolutionary activity, the exalting experience of breaking with the old world was combined in people’s lives with the fear of plunging into the unknown, with the suffering entailed by seeing the security of their own habits and relations destroyed, with the need to make sacrifices and commitments, with the unpleasantness of political intrigues and ideological clashes … all those things that make revolutions more than just a “great big party”. Instead of repeating the typical simplifying litany that places the proletariat on one side and reaction on the other, the author addresses the explosive tensions that shook the lives of the revolutionaries of that era, as well as the tumultuous relations between various currents within the proletarian movement.

For these very reasons, this analysis cannot be impartial: the author sides with his friends, without any pretense of “objectivity”. This attitude imbues the text with a passionate enthusiasm that is simultaneously its greatest strength but also its greatest weakness: his personal involvement in the experiences he examines allows Santini to provide us with a profound and detailed view, but at the same time it prevents him from maintaining a balanced perspective on the factors in play. In particular, I think that he grants too much importance to the personal figure of Cesarano (despite the author’s caveats to the contrary) and to his theoretical work. There can be no doubt that Cesarano was a remarkable person who made a great contribution to the movement, but the way Santini insists on his importance is surprising coming from someone who came of age in a current influenced by the Bordiguist tradition, which is a great enemy of personalism and of the importance granted to “great men” in history. It is strange to find, in a text so full of lucidity, that the author can occasionally slip and make such peculiar statements as the following:

Critica dell’utopia capitale, had it been completed and disseminated in time, would have played the role of a valuable antidote against many of the ideological poisons … which infected the so-called ‘creative wing’ of the movement of ‘77 from its very inception.”

Or like this:

“….These two tendencies [self-valorization and isolation] could have found an antidote in the work of Cesarano, if they could have understood it.”

It is one thing to recognize the value of a theoretical work for its radical and clarifying features, but another one entirely to attribute to it the ability to change the course of a social movement. A theory may of course seek to help the proletarian movement avoid being “poisoned” by ideology, but it can only act as one partial influence among many others. With respect to both the case of communist minorities as well as the proletarian movement in general, ideologization is the result of the complex interaction between innumerable factors—among which, the content of immediate social practice occupies a central place—rather than of intellectual errors that are spread by contagion from one mind to another and which can be counteracted by the “antidote” of a correct theory. The practical content of the movement can be analyzed and predicted, but for the most part it is beyond the scope of formal theory, since it responds to its own laws and evolves in accordance with what its protagonists perceive to be immediate necessity. Although theory formally expresses the content of human relations, it only expresses a negligible part of them; it is one mediation among others, and as such cannot by itself alter the material conditions that produce ideology or its supersession. The purview of theory is in fact much more modest: in the best case, it can publicly explain aspects of reality or relations that were not normally perceived, or call attention to the risks and the opportunities of a situation that affects everyone. Everything else depends on the men and women dedicated to action and struggle.

The overestimation of the power of written theory is not the only feature that can be criticized in Santini’s article, but this did not discourage me when it came time to translate it. I do not think that in this case the author was trying to argue in favor of personalism or of idealism. I believe, rather, that he permitted himself some exaggerated claims, inspired by his great affection for Cesarano and for the experience that he recounts, which is of course debatable, but does not invalidate the contribution made by the text taken as a whole.

The same is true of the emphasis that Santini places on the need for revolutionary regroupment, an aspect that, in my view, he does not subject to a profound enough analysis. Considering the indisputable dispersion of revolutionaries, it seems to me to be of little use to call for their regroupment as if this were itself enough to solve anything. In reality, it is not so much a question of getting the people with revolutionary ideas to associate with one another, but to know for what purpose they would do so, besides the enjoyment of their mutual affinity. To do this, however, does not by any means require that one be a “revolutionary”: we proletarians have a tendency to unite spontaneously because this is what our social nature demands: it is not a question of choice. If such a regroupment has some special purpose, this is another question, but it only makes sense to debate this question in relation to each specific case. Whether it involves organizing a potluck dinner, a strike picket at work, the publication of a text of radical critique or agitation in support of imprisoned comrades … there are a thousand things that can be discussed and acted upon, without losing sight of the fact that each person participates in this or that activity because it directly affects his personal existence. But a general appeal to revolutionaries in order to convince them to regroup in accordance with their ideas, is another matter entirely, which basically is oriented towards transcending concrete determinations that link each person to a specific kind of activity. I shall pause here to examine this point more carefully because I believe that what Santini expresses in his article is symptomatic of a very widespread perception.

What Santini says is true: the retreat of the working class to defensive positions or to mere helplessness only aggravates the devastation produced by capitalist development, and in such conditions isolation cannot be defended with the delirium displayed by the apologists for theoretical purism in the early seventies. But there is also another question: as long as social atomization persists in the proletariat as a whole there will be limitations to the regrouping of radical minorities, since their activity inevitably tends to reproduce the conditions in which their class lives and acts. This must have a repercussion on their practice, which will tend to focus on one particular issue to the detriment of others, with the exclusionary effect this entails. Thus, it is by no means strange that some revolutionaries undertake solidarity actions on behalf of prisoners while others concentrate on rebuilding nuclei of agitation in the workplace; likewise, it is logical that some would prefer to respond to the need for independent media, while others devote their efforts to preserving the historical memory of the proletariat … and so on. It would be absurd to expect that each person should assume responsibility for all the practical necessities of the movement, nor does it make any sense to demand that all those who are engaged in different activities should converge in a single perfectly integrated collectivity: this would be enough to render their co-existence impossible, assuming with justification that a certain degree of dispersion is the inevitable effect of the way one lives in this society. In these conditions, it is normal for those who are trying to develop a “total practice” to end up absorbed in an overwhelming flood of tasks and relations where what they gain in terms of extension is almost always lost in terms of depth. The dissatisfaction that this generates is usually expressed in a recriminatory discourse that makes the radical minorities themselves responsible for the dispersion and weakness of the proletarian movement. Each group or individual therefore discovers reasons for underestimating the others because they are “only” devoted to labor issues, or counter-information, or prisoners’ aid, or theory, etc. Ultimately, from this point of view all of them are culpable for not being sufficiently revolutionary to have an impact on the general situation. Such an attitude is equivalent to putting the responsibility for industrial pollution on the shoulders of the ordinary consumers. In both cases what is expressed is a feature of radical democratism, which relies on the moral power of good intentions to resolve the problems that can by no means be resolved under capitalist conditions.

The preferential dedication to certain tasks will only cease to be a problem in a revolutionary context, in which human relations will possess a new dynamic corresponding to new social problems; and in which the resulting polyvalence will not be a distinctive trait of “revolutionaries”, but of broad sectors of the population. As long as this does not take place, and perhaps even after it has occurred, it is inevitable and even desirable that some should devote themselves with more enthusiasm to one or another type of activity. If the preference for one activity instead of others today appears as a limitation this is not due to the actual content of this activity, but due to the fact that the collective capacity for harmonizing the diverse activities in a coherent community has not been sufficiently developed.1 This is only a reflection of the way the population as a whole relates to the instruments of production and to the products of their activity. Communism, however, does not impose the abstract demand that each person should occupy himself indiscriminately with everything; instead, it allows for the harmonious social coordination of individual aptitudes. The communist production of the “total man” is not the production of the isolated individual in possession of infinite abilities, but the total community: in this community, man does not need to do everything that the others do, but he has the opportunity to do anything because he no longer encounters arbitrary impediments that separate him from his own inclinations. This has nothing to do with the madness of the “new man” that justified the spectacular protagonism of certain revolutionary leaders, and which is today still nourishing the desire for fantasy and the moralism of those who want to see their own personal requirements rule the lives of everyone in the entire world.

Returning to Santini, I think that his overestimation of theory as well as of the current possibilities for revolutionary regroupment are related to the insufficiency of his criticism of the point of view elaborated by Cesarano and Invariance during the seventies: a point of view in which the crisis of capitalism presents such apocalyptic and unfavorable features for communism, that revolutionary possibilities no longer seem to be contained within the social contradiction of capitalism itself, but elsewhere. Thus, theory appears as a means capable of expressing possibilities situated beyond the immediate social contradiction (which actually amounts to a new esotericism); while regroupment seems to provide access to such possibilities, without taking into account the fact that the revolutionaries themselves are immersed in the social contradiction and in history, from whose limits in any event they can hardly escape.

In Europe the eruption of ’68 was followed by a deep decline that took longer to become apparent in Italy than it did in France, but which had an impact on the entire proletarian movement. Camatte and Cesarano, who had grasped the depth and the regenerative power of the movement, saw how the latter fell apart, and left in its wake a wreckage of desperation and bitterness. This led them to endeavor to theoretically prove that the revolution had lost a battle, but not the war. On what basis, however, can such a claim be made, in the midst of all the signs of a generalized defeat? It seemed obvious that the social contradictions inherent to capitalism were not enough to assure the victory of the revolution, but, in that case, what force can determine that communism will be imposed sooner or later? The very fact that the problem of the revolution was formulated in these terms was already the proof that they had lost touch with their fluctuating movement; the answer to this problem would, in the best cases, express the desire that the revolution is still possible, but not an understanding of why it should still be possible. And the answer, of course, was in the human species itself, but no longer in its social and historical becoming, but at the level of its existence as a biological species. The revolution was no longer perceived as the result of the ongoing social contradiction, but as a necessity of a natural order: it would ultimately be imposed by homo sapiens’ need for survival.

It must not be forgotten, first of all, that these claims, disregarding for now their debatable theoretical validity, expressed the firm resolve to support the revolutionary proletariat at the moment when the contours of a brutal bourgeois counteroffensive were already beginning to be discernible. Nor could it be otherwise, since communist theory, like any other theory, is the product of a society ruled by class antagonism and operates as an active element in this conflict. Secondly, before we consider whether Camatte and Cesarano were mistaken by proclaiming the biological basis of communism, it would be of interest to understand why they sought its explanation in biology rather than in the immanent limitations of the capitalist mode of production, as Marx and Bordiga had previously done, for example. For now I will have to leave these questions unanswered, because this is not the place to examine them in depth. What I would like to emphasize is that, in Apocalypse and Survival, Santini himself, even though his balance sheet of an entire period of struggle did not pursue the critique of its theoretical results far enough, has nonetheless posed a whole series of problems which have a great deal of relevance for us today.

Is the proletariat the expression of a biological force that is strong enough to prevent capitalism from destroying humanity? Is the instinct of survival enough to revolutionize the current mode of production? Is communism a mere mechanism for the survival of the species, or is it something more than this? What exactly does it mean to say that it is by way of the communist revolution that humanity will be “reconciled with nature”?

I will not, of course, attempt to answer these questions here, which is beyond my abilities. But in any event I would like to outline some reflections that I think may be able to serve as an approximation to such an undertaking.

To begin with, the idea that the social contradiction itself is no longer enough to assure the revolutionary future and that this future must be based on other foundations, constitutes a theoretical regression with respect to the Marxist critique of political economy. Marx’s merit consists in the fact that he formulated the communist revolution as a possibility engendered by the very development of class societies, and not as the result of biological evolution or any other supra-historical process. It is true that the critique of political economy starts from a reflection on the condition of man as a generic being in relation to the physical world and with the biosphere; but a premise is not the same as the guarantee of a result. It is one thing to say that the process of humanization renders the communist transformation of society necessary, and something else entirely to claim that communism is inevitable due to the evolution of the species. This second notion, which has led to the identification of the revolutionary future with the immediate affirmation of a primordial “life force” in personal and collective experience, undoubtedly expressed in the era of Invariance the firm determination to resist counterrevolutionary onslaughts, and has since functioned as a powerful pillar of support for those revolutionaries who are cut off from the revolutionary tradition. But it has also served to cloak with a seemingly revolutionary aura certain kinds of behaviors and representations that this society spontaneously gives rise to everywhere and have nothing revolutionary about them. The vitalist concept of communism arose to express the tenacity of a working class besieged by reaction, but it was no longer relevant: it was no longer so much a matter of resisting, but of re-launching communism on the basis of its social and historical premises.

When Cesarano claimed that “the irreducibility of the biological foundation of the revolution guarantees the invincibility of the species”, he was grasping at straws. What is this “biological foundation”? The process of humanization? We do not know much about this, except that as an evolutionary process it does not unfold in accordance with a predetermined goal, but is the result of a very complicated network of interactions and evaluations in which physical and biological as well as cultural and social factors play a role. The primordial life force, then? It must be recalled that western civilization has forged notions like “force” and “life” (as well as many others) to designate the unknown, or that which cannot be defined because no one knows what it is. These notions have never been precisely defined by either western philosophy or western science, and they have been employed to designate not a set of phenomena that are well understood in terms of their own existence, but certain ideas that men have developed with regard to the cosmos and their place within it. These ideas have been transformed in accordance with the ideological prejudices and requirements of a series of systems of class rule, and have even displayed significant variations within one and the same era. It is not the same thing to appeal to the “natural basis” of man in 1510 as in 2010, nor is it the same thing to invoke this “natural basis” with reference to Goethe as it is with reference to Darwin. Up until now the “natural” and the “biological” are far from reflecting the ideal of objective scientific knowledge: to a large extent, they have not transcended the status of ideological constructs. To rely on the social transformation of such “realities” means to make that transformation depend on the dominant prejudices of our time. Ultimately, to make communism depend on economic development is not so different from making it depend on the “life force of the species”. In both cases communism is depicted not as an intentional product of human activity, but as the effect of a force that is external or prior to human activity.

Nor should one understand the “biological foundation” of the revolution in the sense of the Prana of the Upanishads: this concept, which designates the primordial cosmic energy, comprehends the succession of transmutations and metamorphoses in all orders of existence as well as the functioning of every living thing on an immediate physical level; but it does not provide any solution to the problem of determining the concrete contents of these metamorphoses, nor can it by any means serve as the basis for a teleology. To assert the truth of communism by basing it on a foundation that is prior to the social existence of man, or by dispensing with man’s historical determinations, is to plunge into a dead end.

Even if we admit the vitalist concept of communism—recognizing for example in the revolutionary process the autopoietic action of the elemental force or prana—we still have to confront the fact that this force is not only insufficient as a basis for communism, but that it does not even assure the survival of the species. Every day, dozens of animal and plant species are annihilated by human activity, which means that their life forces—or whatever you want to call it—were utterly powerless against the destruction wrought by industrialization. Is it not true that men, were they to rely on their mere “life force”, are just as defenseless against the gigantic nuclear arsenal that looms over them, or against the catastrophic consequences that could be unleashed by widespread genetic modification of the food supply? There is no “irreducible” biological foundation that can guarantee the survival of our species or any other species. The communist revolution is a fundamentally human affair: of course it pertains to what we call “nature”, but above all it involves what distinguishes homo sapiens from the other species. Only humanity has developed its sociability to the point of constructing civilizations and letting them die, and to the point of conceiving the necessity of abolishing and superseding the society that it has itself created. Only human beings are capable of imagining something beyond their immediate conditions and producing themselves in accordance with what they want to be. This distinctively human trait is what led to capitalism and it is the same one that can lead to communism. Such a possibility is a product of the historical development of modern society, and it is upon this possibility that not only the continuation of the humanization process depends, but also the survival of what we call “nature”.

In the radical theory of the seventies the mystification of the “biological” and the rise of immediatism reflect, on the terrain of social subversion, a more general change in society: the end of the wave of capitalist expansion that began after the Second World War, which in turn led to a form of class rule that was more deeply rooted than ever before in the control of populations conceived no longer as merely social realities, but above all as biological forces. The theory of revolution took part in this, for, despite the fact that it assumed the point of view opposed to that of state control—or the point of view of proletarian insubordination—its deductions proceed from the same ideological premise: the socio-historical dimension of man had become secondary compared to his biological dimension, which is now seen as the “fundamental” factor. Thus began a search for the answers to the great questions not in the history—dry and complicated—of the social modes of production, but in more nebulous zones, largely unknown or misunderstood, and for that very reason so much more seductive: in the prehistory of man, in vitalist philosophies and in the opaque surface of the immediate present, where the fashions of the moment are self-validated: situationism, neo-Darwinism and the New Age. This abandonment of the study of history and of the ongoing process of capitalist contradictions—with an exception made for a few militant formulas that are still linked to the revolutionary tradition—might have something to do with the subsequent rise of primitivism, and with the fact that ahistorical immediatism was imposed not as a reaction to the delay imposed by ideology, nor as one form among others of experiencing life, but as the only acceptable way to live. I trust that the article that follows below, now that some critical observations have been set forth, will help to distinguish these unfortunate ideological consequences left in the wake of the defeat of the proletariat, from the really positive contributions that are bequeathed to us by that beautiful and inspiring revolutionary uprising.

Carlos Lagos P.
April 2010

  • 1I have discussed a possible way of addressing this problem in immediate practice elsewhere: