“Capital’s Lapdogs”: How communization theory misreads the proletarians

by Jehu

I apologize for this to my readers, but I cannot help myself. I have been reading another of these trashy anonymous communization manifestos — this one, titled Revolution: program or communization?, which purports to be a primer on communization theory.

Unfortunately, even by the standards of communization theory writings, it is ghastly. But since I come across very little in the way of critical engagement with the underlying argument of communization theory, I am forced to wade through this shit.

This primer in particular stinks of warmed over Open Marxism.

NOTE: The original text is in French. I have based this critique on an English translation, supplemented with a web-based translation service. Where necessary, I have edited the text and placed it [in brackets] to make it more comprehensible to me. It is possible some parts of the authors argument has been mangled in the process and I apologize for this.

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The introduction to this primer argues that communization theory emerges after the collapse of the proletarian revolutions of the 20th century; revolutions that are characterized by what communization theory calls “programmatism”:

According to the theory of communisation, born in the 1970s, the workers’ movement first positively affirmed itself, then gradually decomposed until the 1960s. [This constituted a cycle of struggle called “programmatism “.]

From the emergence of the capitalist mode of production to this period, the workers’ struggles and the vision of the overthrow of capitalism that emerges from them were based on autonomy and positivity that the workers were able to maintain [within] the capitalist relationship. The revolutions of this period could be described as attempts to abolish the capitalist relationship by the affirmation of one of its constituent poles: it is the affirmation of the proletariat constituting itself [as a] class (in Party, in Councils, or in Autonomy), the affirmation of the [working] class in the face of capital and the bourgeois class.

During the revolutions of the 20th century, (roughly until around 1970), the proletarians were able to maintain a degree of autonomy from capital and sought to “affirm” themselves as a class. But the authors also tell us that during this same period the working class sought to put an end to capital by affirming itself as a class.

It is unclear from the text what it means to say the proletarians sought to put an end to capitalism by affirming itself as a class. Since proletarians are a class of commodity sellers, who live by selling their labor power to capital in return for wages (variable capital), the statement appears to make no sense.

If the proletarians are affirming themselves as a class of sellers of labor power, how are they putting an end to capitalism? This would seem to be a contradiction in terms.

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Next, the authors make this statement on classes and class struggle in paragraph 3, which we should compare to Marx and Engels writings.

Here is paragraph 3:

According to Marx, class struggle is based on the contradiction between labor/capital, both poles looking to defend their interests: the capitalists seek to make ever more profit, and thus to extract a maximum of surplus value from the labor of proletarians, while proletarians seek to survive by selling their labor-power, and sometimes take arms against capitalist injustice (known as Justice in bourgeois society).

The above statement basically recapitulates how classes and class struggle is typically presented in popular (and most academic Marxist) literature. In fact, in Marx and Engels’ writings, the situation is far more complex.

In the German Ideology, for example, Marx and Engels described proletarians as the product of bourgeois society:

The bourgeoisie itself with its conditions, develops only gradually, splits according to the division of labour into various fractions and finally absorbs all propertied classes it finds in existence (while it develops the majority of the earlier propertyless and a part of the hitherto propertied classes into a new class, the proletariat) in the measure to which all property found in existence is transformed into industrial or commercial capital. [My emphasis]

The next important statement made on the subject of the proletarians is that, unlike other classes in bourgeois society, they lack a particular class interest to assert against the ruling class:

This subsuming of individuals under definite classes cannot be abolished until a class has taken shape, which has no longer any particular class interest to assert against the ruling class.

I think it is necessary to point out that in the German Ideology Marx and Engels have a peculiar approach to proletarian class interest. As can be seen in the above text, the absence of a proletarian class interest is critical to Marx and Engels’ entire argument. They argued the proletarians would put an end to classes and class society precisely because they had no particular class interest to assert against the ruling class. If we now assume the working class has a class interest to defend, what mechanism remains for us to explain why the proletarians can put an end to class society?

The authors of this primer make the sort of mistake here that a writer might make if they adopted the caricature of Marx’s theory often found in most college textbooks. On the other hand, there may be good reason for the persistence of this caricature, since just a year later Marx appears to reverse himself and writes in his Poverty of Philosophy that the proletarians spontaneously combine and defend their interests against the capitalists:

Large-scale industry concentrates in one place a crowd of people unknown to one another. Competition divides their interests. But the maintenance of wages, this common interest which they have against their boss, unites them in a common thought of resistance – combination. Thus combination always has a double aim, that of stopping competition among the workers, so that they can carry on general competition with the capitalist.

So do the workers have an interest to assert against the ruling class or not? It largely depends on which text you accept as the definitive statement on the subject. There is a lot to unravel here, but first let’s allow the authors to dig their hole deeper.

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We now come to what might be called the core of communization theory, beginning with paragraph 5. The authors have to explain why immediate communization of society is necessary now and not — say — when Marx was writing the Communist Manifesto. The authors begin with a quote from Théorie Communiste:

“The proletariat is then invested with a revolutionary nature which makes it contradictory with Capital, and which modulates in accordance with more or less mature historical conditions. Programmatism is not only a theory, it is above all a practice of the proletariat within which a rise in the power of the [proletarian] class within the capitalist mode of production is positively the footstep of the revolution and of communism, up until the 1960s.” [Théorie Communiste n°26]

In the commentary that follows, the authors of this tract add this:

“At first, proletarian struggle belongs to what Marx described in Capital (Vol. 1, Ch. 6) as “the formal subsumption of labor to capital.” Which means that capitalist domination over workers is only formal, its rooting within society is not yet complete. Workers can, in a revolutionary situation, form a class “for itself,” capable of becoming autonomous from the capitalist class it confronts. Such a situation lasted until the 1920s. Subsequently (and until the 1960s), this domination gradually became “real” and accentuated and thus the labor movement became fully integrated into capitalism.”

Let me see if I can restate the above argument without screwing it up too much: Up until the 1960s, capitalist domination over workers was still incomplete. During periods of revolutionary ferment, the workers were still capable of becoming “autonomous” (i.e., independent, self-directed) from the capitalist class. However, for reasons not explained in this short primer, starting around the 1920s and continuing until the 1960s, the labor movement lost the capacity for self-direction and gradually became fully subordinated to capitalism.

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Now, given the sometimes sometimes confusing descriptions of the proletariat offered by Marx and Engels in various early writings, it is possible to cite passages that appear to support the thesis that there was a period of relative autonomy for the workers movement. But, did Marx actually believe that the proletariat, (who, we already know, is a product of the bourgeois epoch), was ever invested with a revolutionary nature that made it contradictory to capital?

In that case, someone needs to explain this really long, tedious passage from Capital where Marx basically calls the proletarians capital’s fully domesticated lapdogs:

It is not enough that the conditions of labour are concentrated in a mass, in the shape of capital, at the one pole of society, while at the other are grouped masses of men, who have nothing to sell but their labour-power. Neither is it enough that they are compelled to sell it voluntarily. The advance of capitalist production develops a working class, which by education, tradition, habit, looks upon the conditions of that mode of production as self-evident laws of Nature. The organisation of the capitalist process of production, once fully developed, breaks down all resistance. The constant generation of a relative surplus-population keeps the law of supply and demand of labour, and therefore keeps wages, in a rut that corresponds with the wants of capital. The dull compulsion of economic relations completes the subjection of the labourer to the capitalist. Direct force, outside economic conditions, is of course still used, but only exceptionally. In the ordinary run of things, the labourer can be left to the “natural laws of production,” i.e., to his dependence on capital, a dependence springing from, and guaranteed in perpetuity by, the conditions of production themselves.

Certainly, says Marx, the proletarians can become unruly and bothersome for capital and every once in a while a few of them need to be shot or jailed, but this is the exceptional case. In the ordinary run of things, economic forces permanently subordinate them to the conditions of capitalist production. The worker’s subordination to the conditions of capitalist production, says Marx, is guaranteed in perpetuity.

Marx published those words in 1867. His statement in Capital, therefore, takes into account his earlier passages both from his Poverty of Philosophy and the German Ideology. The statement in Capital suggests that even when workers combine to carry on competition with the capitalist — up to and including political combination — they are already fully subordinated to, fully integrated into the capitalist mode of production.

So when, exactly, did this imagined period of “autonomy” from capital occur?

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Let’s sum up what we have so far:

What the communization theory school has done here is propose a hypothesis for why the political revolutions of the 20th century failed. This hypothesis states that for some (undefined) reason the proletariat lost its alleged capacity for self-direction and stopped defending its class interests. However, even my cursory examination of Marx and Engels’ writings (German Ideology, Poverty of Philosophy and Capital) suggests the proletariat never had any such autonomy from capital in the first place as the communization theory school proposes and, in any case, never had any class interest to defend beyond that of a class of commodity sellers, since it is itself a unique product of the bourgeois epoch.

Contrary to communization theory, in Marx’s theory of bourgeois society the proletariat has no class interest to assert against the ruling class; is completely subordinated to the capitalist mode of production; and, as a class, likely can’t even imagine a society founded on conditions of production other than those of the capitalist mode of production.

Yet, for all of this, in the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels make this very interesting statement:

“Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class,”

By the standards of present day “anti-capitalism”, this is a bewildering statement. In Capital, Marx argues that the proletarians have no capacity to resist the advances of the capitalist mode of production. Despite this, in the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels call these same proletarians the gravediggers of the capitalist mode of production.

How are we to reconcile these two views of the proletarians?

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Let me propose a hypothesis:

The simple answer is that Marx and Engels believed the proletarians alone is the really revolutionary class facing the bourgeoisie, for the very same reason it has no capacity to resist the advances of the capitalist mode of production. Which is to say, the working class has no autonomy and positivity within the capitalist relationship, precisely because it is itself a creature of the capitalist mode of production. The proletarians are a class who look on the conditions of the capitalist mode of production as self-evident laws of Nature.

Practically, this means two things:

First, proletarians are completely at home in what is a highly toxic, poisonous environment for all hitherto existing social relations, as Marx and Engels explain in the Manifesto:

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

Second, proletarians are completely at home in an environment that is continuously being revolutionized:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

When Marx and Engels say the proletarians look upon the conditions of that mode of production as self-evident laws of Nature, they aren’t just saying that proletarians look upon the buying and selling of labor power as natural, they are also saying the proletarians thrive and grow in an environment that is highly toxic to all hitherto existing classes and subject to continuous catastrophic uncertainty and crises.

The proletarians survive and thrive in conditions that must annihilate all other classes in bourgeois society — including the bourgeoisie itself.

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In communization theory, the revolutionary character of the proletariat arises from its alleged contradiction with capital.

In Marx’s theory, the revolutionary character of the proletariat arises from its complete subordination to capital, whose economic laws they look on as laws of nature. The proletarians are completely at home in the sort of absolutely toxic environment that drives all other classes to extinction and revolutionizes all existing social relations.

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