Some notes on Bruno Astarian and Gilles Dauve’s “Everything Must Go! The abolition of Value”

by Jehu

NOTE: This is basically both a sympathetic and tentative review of the book. If I seem a little harsh it is only because I am an asshole so I write that way as well.

*****

The book, “Everything Must Go! The abolition of Value”, by Bruno Astarian and Gilles Dauve makes an interesting assertion:

“The notion of a transitional society, if ever valid, is now obsolete and reactionary.”

This assertion appears to be a rejection of one of Marx’s most significant propositions regarding the practical problem of a society in transition from capitalism to communism. In his Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx had this to say:

“Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”

It would appear, at first, that Astarian and Dauve reject this formulation by Marx and thus place themselves outside of what has been the conventional Marxist discourse on the subject. However, the problem with Astarian and Dauve’s paraphrasing of Marx’s critique is that, so far as I can tell, nowhere does Marx speak of a “transitional society”. Instead Marx speaks of a “political transition period.”

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that Marx is speaking of some duration of time required to remake society along different lines than existed under the capitalist mode of production. Does this period correspond to a ‘transitional society’ or ‘a society in transition’? Moreover, am I drawing too fine a distinction between the two formulations?

Of course, I am reading the Astarian and Dauve text in English. In English, there is a significant difference between a ‘transitional society’ and a ‘society in transition’. Perhaps the text in its original language clarifies this problem. In any case, in the English text at least, Marx spoke of ‘a society in transition’, not of ‘a transitional society’. The period of time required for this transition may be long or short, but it is the matter of its duration, not the construction of a different, transitional, society prior to communism.

I only say this because if the English text of the Critique is valid, Astarian and Dauve’s fundamental thesis is correct:

“The notion of a transitional society, if ever valid, is now obsolete and reactionary.”

Not only is such a notion “obsolete and reactionary,” the very idea cannot be found in any text of Marx and Engels, directly or indirectly. As with a number of other ideas popular among Marxists, the idea of a “transitional society” was invented by Marxists after the death of Marx and Engels. Marx and Engels spoke of a period of transition, not a transitional society. This period of transition would still have a state, but it would be a dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e., the proletariat organized as the ruling class.

Let me say frankly that I advance this argument because I want the central argument of the so-called communization tendency to be as consistent with Marx’s argument as possible. Astarian and Dauve state that thesis this way:

“The communist revolution defines itself today as the simultaneous abolition of the two classes by the communising proletariat. Hence, it is the immediate radical transformation of activity, the overcoming of all separations.”

There is nothing in this thesis that implies the formation/creation of a new transitional society. Rather, the thesis explicitly suggests a transition period during which the existing capitalist social relations are communized.

Here, however, the logical argument contained in the thesis begins to break down. The writers state:

“I am ready to admit that it takes some naivete to assert that communisation is not all that insurmountable a problem.”

The break down identified here is not the result of a conceptual defect, but of translating the conception of communization into a practical program:

“First, an analysis of the whole movement of class struggle cannot dispense with understanding what overcoming the contradiction between classes means.”

Which is to say, Dauve admits he doesn’t have the slightest idea what ” the immediate radical transformation of activity” means practically. And then we have the problem of defining the end point of the transition:

“Second, the proximity and intrication of revolution and counterrevolution requires distinguishing as clearly as possible between what advances the crisis activity of the proletariat towards communism and what makes it move backward towards the restoration of capital.”

The problem faced by Astarian and Dauve, then, i.e., the issues they want to address in the book, are two-fold:

  • What the fuck are we trying to do? And,
  • What will society look like when we are finished doing what we are trying to do?

The problem here is not unique to the communization school. I am willing to bet that 999 communists out of a thousand would be unable to give you their “elevator pitch” if you asked them. What is an elevator pitch? In bourgeois entrepreneurial-speak, an elevator pitch is:

“[A] short sales pitch; that is, a summary used to quickly and simply define a process, product, service, organization, or event and its value proposition.”

A good elevator pitch lasts only about as long as a ride in an elevator. It is a summary of your program that quickly and simply states what communism is and why communism has value for the person to whom you are talking. It is a succinct summary of the aims of communism and why communism has real social value for the average worker. Astarian and Dauve’s “elevator pitch” is 222 pages long — far too long for the average elevator ride.

The length of the pitch in the book is not a big problem. It may not be fit for an elevator ride, but the book can serve other purposes. The problem is that even after 222 pages we get this:

“The theory of revolution assumes an understanding of the fundamental contradiction of capitalist society. That contradiction takes place within the class relation, which alone holds potential for overcoming capital and abolishing classes, work, exploitation, and value. As we have seen, the prerequisite is the insurrectional social relation. Here much remains to be done to understand why and how communisation will get production under way again without productivist measures. These questions go beyond the scope of this text.”

Thus, even 125 pages later, Astarian and Dauve still cannot tell us what their conception of communization means practically. Nor can they explain why communization offers any hope for a realistic strategy over the previous Leninist and Soc-Dem strategies.