“Capital’s Lapdogs”: How communization theory also misreads the proletarian revolution

by Jehu

This is part two of the notes I made on the text, Revolution: program or communization?, which purports to be a primer on communization theory. Part one can be found here.

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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When communization theory speaks of “programmatism”, they mean, in first place, the revolutions inspired by the program outlined by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto. Communization theory does not simply differ with Marx on what makes the proletarians a revolutionary class, it differs with his entire conception of proletarian revolution as it was described in the text.

The authors of this tract make the rather astonishing accusation that the revolutions of the 20th century that were inspired by the Manifesto did not question capital as a mode of production, but only questioned the management of production by the bourgeoisie. In addition, they argue that these revolutions made no attempt to abolish commodity production and failed because they did not attack the reproduction of capitalist exploitation.

We are told that the programmatist revolutions of the 20th century were all about controlling the movement of capitalist value. They argue the proletarians could abolish wage-labor by devices like employment labor vouchers in place of money. Moreover, the authors tell us, these revolutions never took into account the contradiction between the sexes, and the reproduction of capital “through the activity of ‘women,'” a socially-constructed gender.

Unlike the program proposed by the Manifesto, the authors propose, “the immediate production of communism: the self-abolition of the proletariat by way of its abolition of Capital and the State.” The proletarians, we are told, no longer need to detail their aims in a Manifesto-style program based on revolutionary theory.

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Why is it possible today to propose direct and immediate communization of society? The authors are unclear in this tract, but they do point to what they call “The failure of “economistic” Marxist theories’ comprehension of the social sequence in progress, since the restructuring in the 1970s, [which] has led to a renewed interest in the critique of the Economy as such.”

What specific changes in the structure of capitalism occurred in the 1970s that make it possible now to go beyond the Manifesto and propose ending the proletariat itself is never actually explained, nor do the authors point us to where we might find such an explanation.

But there is a bigger problem with this text.

At first, the authors seem to suggest the revolutions of the 20th century based on the Manifesto simply made no attempt to abolish commodity production and capitalist exploitation. Then they seem to suggest specific, but undefined, changes in the structure of capital itself makes it necessary to go beyond the Manifesto strategy to directly abolish commodity production and capitalist exploitation — i.e., immediate communization of society.

So, which was it?

Did the revolutions of the 20th century just fail to immediately communize society or did immediate communization of society require certain definite material changes in the capitalist mode of production?

Predictably, communization theory is unable to settle this issue. Instead they warn their readers away from judging the failed revolutions of the 20th century too harshly:

“There was no offensive made against commodity production, or against the machinery itself. Though it is not a matter of saying that the proletarians were “wrong,” nor that they were “right” in acting as such: they acted in a way adequate to their times. If the programmatic revolution did not succeed, in sum, it is because this revolution was not able to attack the very reproduction of exploitation.”

The proletarians weren’t wrong when they failed to put an end to commodity production, you see — they were just… uh, adequate.

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The condescension of the communization school is quite staggering — and quite inexplicable given the obvious fact that no classical Marxist ever believed it was possible to bypass the capitalist epoch and immediately create a communist society in the first place. As weird as this might sound today to our “anti-capitalists”, Marx held that capital, not the proletarian revolution, created the material foundation for communism.

As he explained in Capital, volume 3, chapter 15:

“Development of the productive forces of social labour is the historical task and justification of capital. This is just the way in which it unconsciously creates the material requirements of a higher mode of production.”

This is a theme that Marx and Engels developed from their earliest collaboration in writing the German Ideology. In that text, they argued that communism required that the greatest part of mankind be reduced to proletarians, while wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few capitalists. Both of these conditions themselves require a great increase in productive power of labor. This increase in the productive power of labor itself also would be necessary because without it the proletarians could only realize a communism mired in poverty.

Finally, it would be required because a high degree of development of productive forces implies global intercourse and global competition, which, in turn, makes the revolution of each nation dependent on the revolutions of the others, and puts world-historical, empirically universal individuals in place of local ones — a characteristic that Marx and Engels seemed to think applied to proletarians alone.

Marx and Engels summarized their view that a successful communist revolution would most likely begin in the most developed regions of the world market:

“Empirically, communism is only possible as the act of the dominant peoples “all at once” and simultaneously, which presupposes the universal development of productive forces and the world intercourse bound up with communism. Moreover, the mass of propertyless workers – the utterly precarious position of labour – power on a mass scale cut off from capital or from even a limited satisfaction and, therefore, no longer merely temporarily deprived of work itself as a secure source of life – presupposes the world market through competition. The proletariat can thus only exist world-historically, just as communism, its activity, can only have a “world-historical” existence.

So, no Marxist before 1917 thought the communist revolution could be successful if it began, for instance, in relatively backward Russia or China. Capitalism first had to prepare the groundwork for a successful communist revolution.

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What would this preparation look like?

In Capital, volume 1, chapter 32, Marx explained that the creation of the material basis for a communist society begins with the conversion of the petty producers into proletarians, and conversion of their means of labor into capital. After this, the further socialization of production would commence, with the expropriation of smaller capitalists by larger capitalists through the centralization of capital, expansion of the social labour process, application of science, cultivation of the soil, the development of social instruments of labour, growing efficiency in the use of means of production, the expansion of the world market, and the growing international character of capitalism.

Despite their ruthless exploitation by the capitalists, this process would constantly increase the mass of proletarians, while it would constantly diminish the ranks of the capitalists. Eventually, the development of the forces of production by capital would reach a point where production for profit became increasingly incompatible with the premises of commodity production itself. This would result in the complete collapse of commodity production. [See: Grundrisse: Notebook VII.] At this point, the state would be forced to step in and assume the functions of the capitalist, thereby becoming the direct exploiter of the proletarians. [See: Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, chapter3.]

It is important to note that, in Marx’s stylized treatment of this process, the abolition of commodity production would be accomplished directly by capital itself, not by the proletarian revolution; and this would occur even if the proletarians did nothing more than show up for work and punch a clock.

Contrary to the communization theory school, the proletarians are themselves the product of this historical process, not its subject.

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The goal of the proletarian revolution, as envisioned in the Communist Manifesto, was not to immediately establish a communist society but, as is clearly expressed in the text, to accelerate the socialization of the productive forces:

“The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.”

Which is to say, the goal of proletarian self-rule was to do what capitalism was already doing, but more quickly: rapid industrialization of production.

In this sense, the authors of this tract are absolutely correct to say that the revolutions of the 20th century did not seek to put an end to capitalism; what they appear to miss is the far more important point made by Marx that capitalism itself created the material basis for communist society.

Just as communization theory mistakenly assumes the proletariat is revolutionary because it is antagonistic to capitalism, when Marx thought the proletariat was revolutionary because, of all existing classes, it was uniquely at home within the capitalist mode of production, so this school assume that the goal of the proletarian revolution was to overthrow capitalism, when Marx actually believed the goal of the proletarian revolution was to overthrow the state in order to accelerate capitalist development of the forces of production.

It was this accelerated development that would itself hasten the destruction of capitalism.

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Which brings us to the source of much ambiguity in communization theory. First, while communization theory never actually specifies the change in the structure of the capitalist mode of production that occurred in the 1970s, they do make the accusation that “Marxist “economist” theories have failed to understand” those changes.

What were these changes?

Why were they important enough to note in this primer?

And, if they were important enough to note the changes, why are they not at least briefly defined in the text?

These questions are especially important because of a second, equally vague and undefined argument made by communization theory: the birth of communization theory is dated from the 1970s, following the end of the programmatism period, when, according to communization theory, the worker’s movement lost its capacity for autonomy from the capitalist mode of production.

If I can put these two statements together in a way that might be understood by my readers:

Communization theory appears to argue that since the 1970s, there have been certain definite changes in structure of the capitalist mode of production that render the Communist Manifesto model, (i.e., “programmatism”), obsolete. These changes have robbed the proletariat of its “autonomy” and made the immediate communization of society the only viable path forward.

An interesting hypothesis.

Useless to us, of course, because the communization theory school coyly refuses to tell us what these changes were, but interesting nonetheless.