The Theory of Decline, or the Decline of Theory? Preface to the Swedish Translation 2004 - Aufheben

A preface to the Swedish translation of Aufheben's series on 'decadence', which originally appeared in Riff-Raff # 6.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on June 5, 2011

The writing of the Aufheben articles
on the ‘theory of decadence’ which appeared between 1993 and 1995 was a process
of learning and questioning for us. A large part of our approach was to engage
with what others have said about the issues. We looked both at currents that
have strongly influenced us (e.g. the left and council communists, the
Situationists, the autonomists); others which we have felt obliged to come to
terms with (e.g. Trotskyism) and others which we simply recognised have contributed
something (e.g. the ‘Regulation School’). As the material before us expanded, what had been
intended as a single article extended over three issues. As the questions we
are dealing with are so fundamental, the process of learning and questioning
naturally continues, and if one was to write a text on the same subject now,
one would produce something very different. That said, we would say that most
of the text particularly the identification of weaknesses in previous theory,
does still stand up.

One motivation of the articles was to
confront a central theory of one of the political currents that has influenced
us namely: left communism. For many of those who identify themselves as ‘left communist’
the assertion of capitalism’s decadence is fundamental because it provides a
materialistic justification for the ‘class lines’ or ‘revolutionary political
positions’ which distinguish them from other political tendencies. Support –
if sometimes a ‘conditional’ or ‘critical’ support – for trade unions, parliamentarianism
and ‘progressive’ national liberation struggles, is a characteristic of most ‘leftist’
politics. Left communists define themselves in large part through precisely
their rejection of these forms, in favour of struggle which expresses proletarian
autonomy from capitalism. But at the same time left communists wish to claim a
lineage with the politics of Marx and the ‘revolutionary Marxists’ within the
First and Second Internationals who, it has to be recognised, did not take left
communist political positions. By identifying the grounds for the ‘class lines’
in a historical shift around the first world war when capitalism enters its
decadent phase, left communists are able to uphold their positions while at the
same time claiming a continuity with those who had practised a different
politics in the previous ‘ascendent’ period of capitalism. In other words
decadence theory allows its adherents to distinguish their politics from ‘leftism’
while not distinguishing themselves from Marx despite his apparent ‘leftism’.
Never having been satisfied by this abstract and schematic way of dealing with
such complex historical and practical-political issues, we wished to confront
the theory.

However we chose not to limit ourselves to
a critique of the explicit theories of decadence or decline offered by certain
more or less obscure groups and political tendencies. The idea of decadence has
a more general significance than such an approach would indicate. It became
apparent to us that in the idea of decadence one is actually faced with
questions central to the whole effort by Marx and Marxists to theorise
capitalism and its overthrow. Some of the questions we thus end up touching on
are: Whether and how to periodise capitalism? How to understand capitalist crises?
How to grasp subjectivity and objectivity? What is the meaning of the
transcendence of capitalism?

Most of the dynamic revolutionary
theorising we engage with was produced either as with council and left
communism, around the revolutionary wave of 1917 or as with the Situationists
and the autonomists with the wave around 1968. These ideas then, emerged as
expressions of what can be seen as the two main highpoints in the cycles of
class struggle that characterised the twentieth century. Indeed the more explicit
‘theory of decadence’ emerged as groups forming in the aftermath of ’68 tried
to appropriate the council and left communist theories produced in the earlier
wave. Arching over both these periods is the need to separate what revolution
and communism are ‘really’ about, from the regimes established in Russia and elsewhere in its name, and more generally from a ‘leftist’
politics which can be seen to, however critically, accept in some way a statist
and productivist model of socialism. It is probably significant then, that Aufheben’s
attempt at rethinking should emerge shortly after the events of 1989-91. Even
the groups that had long rejected the pseudo-opposition which the Eastern bloc offered
to western capitalism, had nonetheless developed their theory in relation to
this bifurcated world. Now that its grip on the theoretical and political
imagination had been broken, the time was right for some fresh thinking. On the
other hand some of the weaknesses in the text may in part be laid at the fact
that it was produced not in a highpoint in the class struggle but in a period
of relative quiet. When the first part of the articles was being written one of
capitalism’s periodic recessions was just ending, when the third part came out
it was entering what we can now see as one of the greatest speculative bubbles
in its history. With the collapse of the USSR,
the bourgeosie was making what gains it could from the opportunities opened up
by the new world situation. Class struggle, was tending, in the Open Marxist
phrase to show itself only in the mode of being denied.

*  *  *

Just as the articles criticised other
theoretical work, they has been subjected to critique. Predictablly those who
hinge their whole political identity around the theory of decadence and the
role it assigns them, reacted negatively to the articles, but criticisms have
also come from less dogmatic perspectives. One objection was to the very
approach of the articles which some felt to be a kind of ‘academic theorising
about theory’ removed from relevance to the class struggle. This argument is
based on the questionable assumption that there is one obvious way of doing
good revolutionary theory. Against this one can say that we simply wrote about
something that we thought interesting, in the way that we were able to at that
time. We wrote it then essentially for ourselves – but the positive response
that the articles received from some readers indicated that this critical
engagement with previous theory has been useful to others.

It is true that theoretical production is
not about a relation of ideas to other ideas but must be a expression of real
social movement: the council communists cannot be understood separate to the
German Revolution, the Situationists cannot be understood separate to the
Movement of May ’68. At the same time the theoretical writings of such
participants in these historical moments, is one of the main things left behind
by previous social movement. Past theory is a concentrated expression of – and
thus a way we can connect to – previous class struggle. The engagement with
previous theory which is the main part of the articles, is part of a dialogue
or conversation in which we take up what others have said which means something
to us, and say something back which means something to the reader, who may say
something back... This ongoing dialogue – a dialogue in which more practical
developments in the class struggle are constantly ‘butting in’ – is part of
the material and social production of consciousness. But, as Marx says in the
German Ideology, ‘Consciousness [das Bewusstsein] can never be anything else
than conscious being [das bewususste Sein] and the being of men is their actual
life process’. Thus communist theory can only be our more or less adequate
consciousness of the real contradictions in that life process, moving towards
the abolition of the present state of things. Such consciousness is a
reflection of and a reflection on that real movement.

A hostile response to the articles was
contained in the publication Swamp Thing [possibly still available from
Box 15, 138 Kingsland High street London E8 2NS] One argument the authors made
was that our way of dealing with Trotskyism alongside left communism – Mandel
alongside Mattick – obscured the crucial dividing lines between revolutionary
and counter-revolutionary traditions. Such a line of criticism, seems to us,
to falsely assume that there are revolutionary proletarian theorists who
produce revolutionary theory, and non-revolutionary bourgeois theorists who produce
non-revolutionary ideas. Fundamentally one must be willing to take useful ideas
from wherever we find them and to criticise inadequate ideas wherever they
exist. Of course such an examination should always consider the political

commitments of the theorists under
discussion, and there generally are links between a thinkers’ political
perspectives and their theoretical production, but the relation is not always
straightforward. For example, Mattick’s theory of capitalist crisis is closer
to Marx’s critique of political economy than Mandel’s and is for him linked
with a more spontaneist perspective of class action. But Mattick’s ideas have
nonetheless been adopted by many with straight Leninist politics which shows
its revolutionary implications are by no means obvious. A key argument to the
articles is that there is an underlying issue of ‘objectivist Marxism’ that
crosses the political lines between council communists like Mattick and
Trotskyists like Mandel. To confront this we could not limit ourselves to
addressing those theorists that pass a political litmus test.

However the Swamp Thing critics
argued that – with this category of ‘objectivist Marxism’ – Aufheben: »are
essentially recycling a discussion of free will and pre-determination in the terms
of subjective and objective reality, in terms of an Autonomist vision of the
class struggle imposing the collapse of capitalism, as opposed to the ‘classical
Marxist’ view that the decadence of capitalism imposes the task of revolution
upon the proletariat.» In an immediate reply to this criticism we argued, that
to the extent that there was a similarity between the articles and the
philosophical debate of free will versus determinism, that is because that
antinomy is how the problem of relating to an alienated world appears to
thinkers trapped within a bourgeois perspective and thus without access to the
solution to this problem: revolutionary praxis. However we would now, consider
that the issue of determinism versus voluntarisms or free action needs further
thought. The question is coming up for example, in our engagement with the
French group Theorie Communiste (TC). What individuals or
classes can do is determined by their social relations. However if the reality
of the human essence is, as Marx has it in the Theses on Feuerbach, ‘the
ensemble of social relations’, then for individuals and classes to be
determined by their social relations is – self-determination. Another famous
Marx quote is that: ‘Men make history but not in conditions of their own choosing’
and we can say that at a certain point people will be determined to make
history and to transform their social relations through communisation.

The most serious critique of the articles
has been produced by the French group Theorie Communiste (TC), to
accompany a translation of the text into French. We published this critique in
Aufheben 11 and replied to it in Aufheben 12. TC agree with much
of our critical point of view on the ‘essential problem of objectivism’ noting
that, ‘it is rare for this issue to be dealt with without descending into the
worst deranged subjectivist imaginings or without simply abandoning a theory of
classes, of their contradiction and of communism as the supersession of this
contradiction.’ However TC thinks we tend to grasp it as an ahistorical
theoretical error rather than, as they do, something produced historically and
necessarily by a phase of the class struggle. TC see a weakness that the
articles are not sufficiently informed by ‘a conception of the contradiction of
capital and proletariat as mutual involvement’ and that as a result communism
and revolution are not historicised but seen to emerge from an essential
invariant revolutionary essence of the proletariat, – its affirmation rather
than its negation. TC draws out the implications of these weaknesses in
the way we deal with such issues as the Russian revolution, crisis theory and
autonomist Marxism. Although we are not persuaded by all of TC’s arguments
particularly their idea that the concept of exploitation should be made to
replace that of alienation, and their alternative periodisation of capitalism
based on formal and real subsumption, we accept that much of their critique
does hit home. We’d encourage the reader to look at their critique and our discussion
of it. The ongoing interchange with TC has now largely gone beyond the
decadence articles into a consideration of how far we would follow, and what
problems we see, in TC’s own way of theorising the issues at stake.

*  *  *

In the end the obvious inadequacy of
the articles which TC and others have noted is that, if in the detail of
their development they make some strong points particulary in the way they
identify the strengths and weaknesses in previous theoretical and political
positions, overall they fail to achieve a theoretical breakthrow of their own.
One can ask then ‘what is their value?’ Looking back at them it seems that they
show a certain ambition, and a willingness to confront some big issues in a
relatively open way. While focused on issues of decadence, capitalist crisis
and so on, the articles can also be seen to go over a large part of twentieth
century class struggle and its theory and to perform a role of situating us in
relation to that history. It is perhaps the fact that they do not falsely
conclude the issues with any easy answer – that shows that they are a honest
attempt to find some truth in a new historical situation.