riff-raff no 8  —  riff-raff.se

Communism as refusal and attack

Some notes on ‘Communism of Attack and Communism of Withdrawal’1

Per Henriksson

på svenska

[I]f we did not find concealed in society as it is the material conditions of production and the corresponding relations of exchange prerequisite for a classless society, then all attempts to explode it would be quixotic. (Marx)

In so far as such a critique [of political economy] represents a class, I can only represent the class whose historical task is the overthrow of the capitalist mode of production and the final abolition of all classes – the proletariat. (Marx)

Marcel presents a very interesting and thought provoking essay in the last issue of riff-raff. However, not without reservations. Indeed, that is what makes the essay theoretically stimulating. But theoretical U-turns and cut capers are always problematic, in that they in themselves seek to move on without maintaining those parts of preceding theory that was adequate (as a theoretical, however not merely ideally, Aufhebung), and see break as more important than continuity in revolutionary theory.

What is positive about the essay is the notion of communism as a ‘verb’ and that theory is to be seen as ‘poetics from a poetical theory’. The form in itself is fruitful, being open, undogmatic and honest, as ‘at the same time an inquiry and a reading’. With this in mind we can live with some of the more categorical assumptions and cut capers, and take them for what they are – stylistic provocations.

The discussion on use-value I’ve been waiting for a long time as a critique of some ‘Autonomists’ and ‘Situationists’ that ‘misunderstand the capitalist dimension of use-values’, due to their understanding of communism as the emancipation of use-values, making them blind for the fact that ‘the originality of capitalism is exploitation of labour-power … rather than the value-form’. Their liberated use-values are still stuck within the capitalist logic.

The discussion on the working class as a ‘cynical subject’, i.e. that ‘they know what they do, and still do it’ is also valuable and provide one moment of the essential question for revolutionaries – ¿para que? Why not Communism yet?2 Since communist theory is more than stating3 – we want to understand in order to make change. Marcel sees this as a sign, and in terms, of the ‘anthropological revolution of capitalism’, i.e. that the worker today not only embody labour but the ‘capital relation as such’, which provide us with ‘more of a “structuralist” explanation’ – enough so for the moment).

This in its turn is linked to another of the fundamental strengths of the essay – the discussion of the implicative analysis of capitalism / class struggle in terms of Marx’s categories ‘formal and real subsumption’. This discussion must constitute the basis for the entire communist theory. Even though I don’t share all Marcel’s conclusions from this discussion.

Finally, in this affirmative part of my evaluation of Marcel’s essay, ‘the organizational implication of communist theory’, his ‘party theory’, his ‘Lenin in Scandinavia’; the projects that he mentions may very well work, together with other, and no matter how Marcel philosophically motivates them. In the end it is as he writes: ‘the only activity to be organised revolutionary is ones own’, which is not to be interpreted individualistically – we are not that unique that no one else shares our situation in capitalism today; we are part of a class – the proletariat. When it comes to ‘organization’4, let me quote the ex-Trotskyist C.L.R. James:

There is nothing more to organise. You can organise the workers as workers. You can create a special organization of revolutionary workers. But once you have those two you have reached an end. Organizations as we have known it is at an end. The task is to abolish organization. The task today is to call for, to teach, to illustrate, to develop spontaneity – the free creative activity of the proletariat. The proletariat will find its method of proletarian organization. … Free activity means not only the end of communist parties. It means the end of capitalism. Only free activity, a disciplined spontaneity, can prevent bureaucracy. … The impulse, spontaneity, with which it created new organizations, the means by which it created them, must now become the end. (C.L.R. James, Notes on Dialectics: Hegel – Marx – Lenin)

The myth of a myth

The fundamental, and thus most problematic, thesis in Marcel’s text is his (‘our’) abandonment of ‘Marxism’s myth of the proletariat’, i.e. our ‘dialectic that claimed communism to be the result of an internal contradiction of the capital relation’, our ‘outdated notion of the character of the revolt’. In ‘sharp contrast’ to this notion ‘we’ have now realised that ‘communism is to be understood as a “mechanical” product rather than a phenomenon born from the capital relation’, in other words that communism ‘blocks and annihilate the capital relation, it does not abolish it’. Thus, communism must be understood as ‘something produced artificially’ as opposed to something ‘born from internal contradictions’, this is so to avoid ‘all teleology’5. But it is not just that the myth is about communism as the result of the internal contradictions of capital; a part of this myth, we learn, is that the working class / proletariat is merely ‘theoretical models’. For Marcel, thus, the ‘theoretical model’ (qua theoretical model) is not the mode of existence of the ‘substance’ (the ‘actual’ proletariat); the models/categories, thus, are not ‘objective forms of thought’ (Marx). Thus, there is hard to find any dialectics, any mediation, between them.

But just as communization is more than a ‘sum of direct actions’ (Dauvé), the working class / proletariat is more than a sum of individual (‘particular’) ‘wage-labourers’ (the aggregate of sociology). Neither is it that the categories working class / proletariat merely are ‘theoretical models’ and that the actors are ‘individual and particular human beings’, the ‘empirical proletariat’, the ‘actual, and heroically struggling classes that have existed in reality’. To give ‘individual and particular human beings’ this exclusivity is to stay with a ‘chaotic conception of the whole’, as Marx wrote in his Introduction of 1857 (Grundrisse, Harmondsworth 1973), i.e. the ‘imagined concrete’; the dialectical method, on the contrary, successively arrives analytically via ‘further determinations’ at ‘ever more simple concepts’, and:

From there the journey would have to be retraced until I had finally arrived at the [‘empirical proletariat’] again, but this time not as the chaotic conception of a whole, but as a rich totality of many determinations and relations. (Marx, Introduction of 1857)

The working class / proletariat is a ‘theoretical concept’, but we use it only in as much as it expresses its content, i.e. in as much as it is a verständige Abstraktion (Marx, Introduction of 1857). ‘Thought forms qua determinate abstractions are modes of existence’ (Gunn, Against Historical Materialism, Open Marxism Vol. II). It may have been ‘concepts’ that fought for the ‘true socialists’ and the protagonists in the Discourse discourse but not for us, neither up to our no 7 nor after. Concept and ‘substance’ are dialectically related, they are however not identical.

Marx does not ‘deduce’ human society from the ‘categories’ but, on the contrary, sees the latter as specific modes of existence of the social being. He does not ‘add’ historicity to an originally static vision; for if historicity is merely added at a certain point it can be also taken away at another. (Mészáros, Marx’s Theory of Alienation, Merlin 1970)

We must keep in mind Marcel’s discussion on the practical workings of abstract labour; why not consider the relation between ‘class’ and ‘empiricism’ in the same manner? It is not that far.

The Marxist critique sees human society in its movement, in its development in time; it utilises a fundamentally historical and dialectical criterion, that is to say, it studies the connection of events in their reciprocal interaction. Instead of taking a snapshot of society at a given moment (like the old metaphysical method) and then studying it in order to distinguish the different categories into which the individuals composing it must be classified, the dialectical method sees history as a film unrolling its successive scenes; the class must be looked for and distinguished in the striking features of this movement. (Bordiga, Party and Class)

But how is ‘class’ constituted, what praxis, what sensuousness dresses itself in this ‘concept’? Marx was clear on this point:

The separate individuals form a class only in so far as they have to carry on a common battle against another class; otherwise they are on hostile terms with each other as competitors. (The German Ideology)

That is, class-in-itself and class-for-itself, to speak so the philosophers understand. This is one of the sides. But we need to know more:

These classes in turn are an empty phrase if I am not familiar of the elements on which they rest. E.g. wage labour, capital, etc. these latter in turn presuppose exchange, division of labour, prices, etc. (Marx, Introduction, 1857)

However, the boat is turned right, at least partly, when Marcel writes that:

The anti-capitalist activities today can not be merely analyed as empirical happenings, they must be understood in relation to the concrete abstractions capital means: the commodity form, abstract labour, value, etc.6

We tried to stress this relation between particular and general already in our Introduction to the first issue of riff-raff:

… we must use, in our analysis of both the class struggle and capitalism as a system, all levels of abstraction, from a compilation of our own individual experiences to the most abstract Capital in general.

However, I don’t attempt to measure if we have succeeded in our ambitions, but please compare issue 3–4 (on class composition and militant inquiries) with no. 6 (on the Decadence theories) and no 7 (on political organization, Darstellung, critique of political economy, also including Marcel’s essay).

Is it with Marcel, if we are to believe Marramao (‘Theory of Crisis and the Problem of Constitution’, published in riff-raff no 7), as with Korsch that he ‘diachronically dilute the dialectical categories of Marxism in order to re-adapt them pragmatically’, and:

…flattens out the dialectical problems of historical constitution … and turns them into positivist problems of empirical specification. The class struggle is thus simplified in a series of empirically grounded actions set loose in different spatial-temporal locations, the multiplicity of which is never connected with the morphological context of the crisis…

…and the result is – ‘tragically impotent’7.

The particular is the mode of existence of the general and vice versa.

In a world which really is topsy-turvy, the true is a moment of the false. (Debord, Society of the Spectacle)

Gunn, in Against Historical Materialism, cites a very interesting example of the relation between quantity/quality that Marx picked up from Hegel, and that has been misunderstood (or not understood at all) by Marxists since (Engels, Lenin8 und consorten). Anyway. For Marx, and Hegel, quantity is the mode of existence of quality and vice versa. In Capital ‘quantitative categories – value, surplus-value, etc. – are construed as qualitative, i.e. as issues in class struggle’ (Gunn). For Engels quantity at a certain point turns into quality (see The Dialectics of Nature), but for Hegel, and what was decisive for Marx’s critique of political economy, quantity not merely turns into quality – quantity is being discussed as quality and vice versa.

For us, and I would like to say for Marx, the dialectical method is totalizing and not causal, i.e. as ‘mechanical’ interaction between external entities/moments. And it is as processing totalization we must understand how, for example, quantity is the mode of existence of quality and vice versa. As Gunn, in ‘Marxism, Metatheory and Critique’, says:

… in social life, all universals are particulars (or potentially so). In the self-understanding of social life, therefore, a genus/species distinction can have no place. Nor can a theory/metatheory distinction, since if universals are particulars then there can be no question of prescribing to social theory the universal categories in terms of which particulars are to be seen. Nor, finally, can there be a theory/practice distinction – in the sense of an external separation between the two – since the very abstractions and generalities and universals in which theorising goes forward are ones which have a vivid social (a practical) mode of life.

Communism as category, and as actual movement

But how to understand communism as a category and as an actual, real movement? I’d like to say that communism appear as projective tension ex negativo (and between the lines) in Marx’s critique of political economy (the understanding and critique of capital). We need to know what capital is to know what it is not = communism. However, it is problematic when we consider the relation between ‘“Comteian” recipies’ and the ‘anatomy of the ape’. Marx avoided speculation about communism as a future social stage and sought in his critique of political economy to theoretically reach communism by presenting how and on what basis it was possible.9 Communism ‘=’ what capitalism is not, or rather the dissolving elements within capitalism as movement, as process. To say, as Marcel so beautifully does (in some internal debate on the issues that was to become his essay on attack/withdrawal), that ‘communism returns from the future’ is not to say that communism is some metaphysical spirit travelling ‘back’, but as projective tension immanent in the capital relation (qua processing antagonism/class struggle). Communism as movement is ‘real’, in the sensuous world, and happens before (and inside of = ‘theoretically’) our very eyes as ‘energic principle’ (Marx). As moments of this actual movement we struggle where we are and as good as we can – and we struggle for our own needs and interests, being moments of this movement.

It seems to me that Marcel is criticizing ‘idealism’s’ Aufhebung – that it merely is about some conceptual Aufhebung with its own ideal immanent logic that in/of itself dissolves into something higher (in the simple world of ideas and metaphysical contradictions), and that the praxis we refer to is merely Hegelian spiritual praxis. But for Marx, and for us, it is about a sensuous practical Aufhebung, not where communism is the “static” a-/trans-historical “goal” for capitalism (and the preceding modes of production), but, nevertheless, where capitalism is the precondition for communism as the possible rupture (‘In as much as such a critique represents a class, it can only represent the class whose historical task is the overthrow of the capitalist mode of production and the final abolition of all classes – the proletariat’. – Postscript to the 2nd Edition of Capital).

Communism is the necessary form and the dynamic principle of the immediate future, but communism as such is not the goal of human development, the form of human society. (Marx, EPM)

There is a great deal of ‘historical imperative’ in Marx’s statement in The Holy Family (1845): ‘Es macht nicht vergebens die harte, aber stählende Schule der Arbeit dursch’, i.e. ‘It does not go through the hard but hardening school of labour fruitlessly’. Capitalism creates the necessary preconditions for communism – that is the ‘historical justification of capitalism’ (Grundrisse) – but history is open. What we know, and Marx knew, however, is that capitalism is a historical transitory, relative mode of production. ‘Man’ only poses tasks he can solve, and for a couple of centuries capitalism has been the outcome – annoying, indeed, but historically necessary (the capitalist red carpet is hard, aber stählende, but we will be facing ‘an offer we can’t reject’: Hic Rhodus, hic salta!. Why not cite a passage from the ‘year of science’, 1873, where Marx explicitly states the historical relativity of the capitalist mode of production, and how this is understood with dialectics in that it:

… includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well; and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary. (Postscript to the 2nd edition of Capital)

We may also consider the following passage from Grundrisse about the historical necessity of alienation and its abolishment:

But obviously this process of inversion is a merely historical necessity, a necessity for the development of the forces of production solely from a specific point of departure, or bias, but in no way an absolute necessity of production; rather, a vanishing one, and the result and the inherent purpose of this process is to suspend this basis itself, together with this form of the process.

Also remember Rosa Luxemburg, in Social Reforms, or Revolution?, on the meaning of Marx’s ouvre in that he ‘understood the capitalist economy historically’, and he did so because he already was a ‘socialist’.

I get the feeling that Marcel settle the account with a Marx beaten up really bad by some ABC book in Sociology – a rigid, dualist, causal Marx, that the beard himself partly gave birth to in his (in)famous Preface of 1859, via the late Engels, and the “orthodoxy of the 2nd Internatioinal” (see Aufheben’s trilogy on Decadence), and happily reproduced by the apologetics of Academy as an efficient weapon against communism in that it presents Marx as a pretentious weirdo on the left wing of capital.

Alienation, Aufhebung, and ‘human nature’10

[C]ommunism [is] no flight, no abstraction, no loss of the objective world created by man or of his essential powers projected into objectivity. No impoverished regression to unnatural, primitive simplicity. [It is] rather the first real emergence, the realization become real for man, of his essence as something real. (Marx, EPM)

The fragments that have produced the controversy about the concept of alienation, and that may provide us with the fundament of an understanding of Marx’s theory and theoretical development – and an understanding of the development of capitalism and class struggle (or rather, capitalism qua class struggle) – are the notes Marx, at the age of 26, made between February and August 1844, known as The Economical-Philosophical Manuscripts, a name Marx didn’t set himself, but by the Muscovite editors in 1927 (if we are to believe Mészáros, the same editors who labelled the manuscripts as idealist, despite the fact that their mentor, Lenin himself, had approvally quoted several passages from the manuscripts that Marx had also put in his Die heilige Familie and put them in his Conspectus of the Holy Family). The key concept in these manuscripts is alienation.

However, this concept brings with it several problems, not the least when it comes to the translation of Marx’s German categories, and that it, indeed, connotes of idealism and existentialism. Marx uses a manifold of different categories that (hopefully) covers its different aspects. The English (and Swedish) category alienation and estrangement is in German Entäusserung, Entfremdung and Veräusserung. Entäusserung and Entfremdung are used more fequently by Marx than Veräusserung. Marx’s definition of the latter is ‘die Praxis der Entäusserung’ or ‘Tat der Entäusserung’. Thus Veräusserung is a way of translating the principle of Entäusserung, i.e. to sell something (N.b. Indeed, Marx also uses the English ‘alienation’, as in ‘profit upon alienation’), into Praxis (practice). In Marx the use of the term Veräusserung can be exchanged for Entäusserung when one refer to an act or practice. Both Entäusserung and Entfremdung have three different conceptual functions: 1) as reference to a general principal; 2) to express a given condition; 3) to illustrate a process leading to this condition. When Marx’s emphasis is on externalization or objectification he uses Entäusserung (or terms such as Vergegenständlichung, while Entfremdung is used when he wants stress that man is facing a hostile power he has created himself.

In close relation to the concept of alienation, to say the least, is Marx’s concept of labour [Arbeit]11. In EPM labour is both labour in general – productive activity as the fundamental ontological determination of ‘humanness’, das menschliches Dasein, i.e. as a first order mediation – and historically specific, as in the form of the capitalist division of labour, as wage-labour, i.e. as second order mediation. It is in the latter sense of the concept, as capitalistically structured activity, that (wage-) labour provides the basis for alienation. The key concepts for Marx in his inquiry into the genesis of alienation is activity [Tätigkeit], division of labour [Teilung der Arbeit], exchange [Austausch], and private property [Privateigentum] (i.e. second order mediations, capitalistically – historically – structured forms). Marx’s ‘positive transcendence’ of alienation is formulated as a ‘necessary socio-historical transcendence’ of these mediations. It is by no means a critique, and ‘transcendence’, of all mediations, or mediations per se; that would be ‘sheer mysticism in its idealization of the “identity of Subject and Object”’ (Mészáros). On the contrary:

this is the first truly dialectical grasp of the complex relationship between mediation and immediacy in the history of philosophy, including the by no means neglible achievements of Hegel. (Mészáros)

The second order mediations, thus, are the mediations of the first order mediations. They can only exist with certain first order mediations as their basis, and they are specific, alienated forms of those. The only ‘absolute’ here is labour as productive activity per se, without which no human existence is possible (cf. Marx’s letter to Kugelmann, July 11, 1868). This must be kept in mind, since:

If ‘productive activity’ is not differentiated into its radically different aspects, if the ontologically absolute factor is not distinguished from the historically specific form, if, that is, activity is conceived – because of the absolutization of a particular form of activity – as a homogeneous entity, the question of an actual (practical) transcendence of alienation cannot possibly rise. (Mészáros)

If private property and exchange, as in political economy, are regarded as absolute, inherent in the ‘human essence’, then both division of labour (wage-labour), the capitalist form of productive activity must also be absolute. In that case the second order mediation appears as first order mediation (in an alienated form, which is assumed). The negation of this alienated manifestation of this mediation must take on the form of a nostalgic moralism, of primitivism. When speaking of this, we must be aware of some critique of the ‘capitalist use of machinery’. Our emphasis must be on ‘capitalist’, even if, as Marcel writes, there are no (class) ‘neutral’ means of production (machines) or use-values.

‘Necessity’, for Marx, is always a verschwindende Notwendigkeit, i.e. a historical, temporal, relative, disappearing necessity (cf. Grundrisse). It is by no means a metaphysic or static necessity. Since:

If history means anything at all, it must be ‘open-ended’. (Mészáros)

Our notion of history must take in account the possibility of rupture in the chain of (reified, fetishist, blind) economical – determined! – determinations.

Human actions are not intelligible outside their socio-historical framework. But human history in its turn is far from being intelligible without a teleology of some kind. If, however, the latter is of a ‘closed’, aprioristic kind – i.e. all varieties of theological teleology – the philosophical system which makes use of such a conception of teleology must be itself a ‘closed system’.

The Marxian system, by contrast, is organised in terms of an inherently historical – ‘open’ – teleology which cannot admit ‘fixity’ at any stage whatsoever. (Mészaros)

Before EPM labour, for Marx, was a seemingly vague concept, as an aspect of the socio-political relations. For example, in the Jewish Question and Hegel’s Philosophy of Right Marx speaks of labour merely as a general ‘need’ [Bedürfnisse], and he had not yet understood the fundamental ontological meaning of the sphere of production. As a consequence of this Marx could not:

grasp in a comprehensive way the complex hierarchy of the various kinds and forms of human activity: their reciprocal interrelations within a structured whole. (Mészáros)

His critique, thus, was political. What sparked his ‘break’, the first result of which was EPM, was Umrisse zu einer Kritik der Nationalökonomie (Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy), by Engels (written in December 1843–January 1844). This made Marx dig into the works of political economy. From now on, with human practice and political economy in focus, we learn:

For this reason it will be found that the interconnection between political economy and the state, law, ethics, civil life, etc., is touched on in the present work only to the extent to which political economy itself ex professo touches on these subjects. (EPM, Preface)

Marx’s concept of alienation, has four main aspects: 1) man is alienated from nature; 2) he is alienated from himself (from his own activity); 3) from his species life (as member of the human race); 4) man is alienated from man (from other human beings). The alienation of labour is man’s relation to the product of his labour, which, at the same time, is his relation to the external, sensuous world. The second point is about the act of production itself. The alienation of labour is also called the ‘alienation of things’ and the alienation in the act of production is called ‘self-alienation’. The third point is implicit in the former, i.e. how the object of labour is the objectification of man’s species being:

…that he is doubled, not only intellectually in consciousness, but in practice, and that he thus may contemplate himself in a world created by him. (EPM, my translation and emphasis)

This is expressed, as in point 4, in terms of human relations. Marx writes:

An immediate consequence of mans estrangement from the product of his labour, his life activity [Lebenstätigkeit], his species-being [Gattungswesen], is the estrangement [Entfremdung] of man from man. When man confronts himself [gegenübersteht], he also confronts other men. What is true of mans relationship to his labour, to the product of his labour, and to himself, is also true of his relationship to other men, and to the labour and the object of the labour of other men.

In general, the proposition that man is estranged from his species-being means that each man is estranged from the others and that all are estranged from mans essence.

Mans estrangement, like all relationships of man to himself, is realised and expressed only in mans relationship to other men. (EPM)

What, then, is this human essence? The a priori given human nature of theological teleology, as in the case of Feuerbach? No:

the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations. (Marx, Theses on Feuerbach)

(I’d like to make clear that I try to say that Marx’s fundamental theory does not differ if one compares EPM with the Theses on Feuerbach and after, even if he, obviously, sharpened his analysis and concepts all the time. Marx ‘broke’ with Feuerbach already during his study known as EPM, even if this ‘break’ may not have been explicit. Marx way out from the dualist and teleological merely-materialism of Feuerbach is his dialectical notion of the category of mediation, i.e. ‘the complex dialectical interrelationship between mediation and totality’ (Mészáros) in a ‘monistic’ system.)

‘Human nature’ is a ‘work in progress’ (cf. the debate Internationalist Perspective no 43), the ensemble of social historical relations. We must hold apart what is common and what is different, and their mutual relations. For example:

Production in general is an abstraction, but a rational abstraction in so far as it really brings out and fixes the common element and thus saves us repetition. Still, this general category, this common element sifted out by comparison, is itself segmented many times over and splits into different determinations. Some determinations belong to all epochs, others only to a few. [Some] determinations will be shared by the most modern epoch and the most ancient. No production will be thinkable without them; however, even though the most developed languages have laws and characteristics in common with the least developed, nevertheless, just those things which determine their development, i.e. the elements which are not general and common, must be separated out from the determinations valid for production as such, so that in their unity – which arises already from the identity of the subject, humanity, and the object, nature – their essential differences is not forgotten. The whole profundity of those modern economists who demonstrate the eternity and harmoniousness of the existing social relations lies in this forgetting. (Marx, Introduction of 1857)

Communism is no GMO, a genetically new man, but an ensemble of social relations constituted from the ashes of the preceding, ‘pre-historical’, antagonistic relations. The ‘return of the subject to itself’ (Aufheben), an expression made to be misunderstood, is not necessarily about some a-historical return to an (a-social) in-itself nature.

The revolution is not the a-historical return of labour to itself but rather return of what has developed as alienated labour to those from whom it has been alienated. It is a uniting of the fragmented social individual. In a sense the subject who returns to itself is humanity not the proletariat, but this is a humanity that didn’t exist before the alienation; it has come to be through alienation. … the notion of return … is about the (re-) union of humans with the social nature they have created historically and which did not exist before. … The humanity from which we are alienated is a humanity which is not yet. (Aufheben, no 12)

Revolution, thus, is the revolution of the alienated/alienating capitalist second order mediations, and the humanity to which we ‘return’ is a no-longer-alienated man, whose productive activity (labour) is ‘its own purpose’ (Marx).

‘The working class – as it is today – can never produce communism’ (Marcel). Indeed. Nothing is static, communist man is produced, produces himself socially, just like the capitalist. Question: how, and perhaps even why?

This revolution is not only necessary because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class that overthrows it only can get the old shit off its back by revolution, and to become capable of building a new society. (Marx, The German Ideology, my translation)

‘Man’, the human nature is produced historically as and in the ensemble of social relations. Depending on the nature of this social totality ‘man’, as a social being, is produced historically as bourgeois or proletarian, or as a communist.

The ‘goal’ of human history is defined by Marx in terms of the immanence of human development (as opposed to the a priori transcendentalism of theological teleology), namely as the realization of the ‘human essence’, of ‘humanness’, of the ‘specifically human’ element, of the ‘universality and freedom of man’, etc. through ‘man’s establishment of himself by practical activity’ first in an alienated form, and later in a positive, self-sustaining form of life-activity established as an ‘inner need’. (Mészáros)

This ‘goal’, thus, is defined in immanently historical terms. However, we’ll never reach the point where we can say: ‘now, the human substance is wholly realised’, because that would deprive man of his most fundamental attribute – the ability to mediate and develop himself.

Communism is the position as the negation of the negation, and is hence the actual phase necessary for the next stage of historical development in the process of human emancipation and rehabilitation. Communism is the necessary form and the dynamic principle of the immediate future, but communism as such is not the goal of human development, the form of human society (Marx, EPM)

Epistemological break, or theoretical deepening?

If one feels the urge to high-light an ‘epistemological break’ in Marx, it might occur in different years and works, not only 1844–1845 – between EPM and the Thesis on Feuerbach – as it was for Althusser, and is for French Théorie Communiste today. If one wish to follow Mészáros this break ought to be located 1843–1844 when Marx started to grasp the meaning of human practice, as I have tried to discuss above. One could also follow Gunn and compare Marx of the 1857 Introduction, where he changed his theoretical approach from the ‘moral framework of competition’, as in 1844, and his ‘general social theory’ of 1845 (The German Ideology) – with his relapse in the 1859 Preface – to a ‘totalizing’ approach.

Aufheben, in their polemic with Théorie Communiste (no 12), are arguing that even though, indeed, there are differences between the Marx of EPM, and the Marx of Grundrisse or Capital, there is ‘more of a connection than break’:

Far then from Marx’s use of species-being, as TC think, being merely a Feuerbachian concept of a generic being – ‘an internal universality linking individuals like a natural process’ – his presentation of the human essence is precisely that it is nothing but activity: a living, evolving relation to nature created/constituted not primarily in consciousness (though human being is conscious being) but in and through social activity. Human historical activity in transforming nature, and creating specifically human sociability – transforms man. This activity has happened in the form of capital. The human essence for the Marx of the 1844 Manuscripts it is not a generic category, it is not fixed – it becomes. The human essence is outside the individual, in the historically determined social relations that he is immersed in. Despite his praise of Feuerbach, Marx in the Manuscripts is already beyond him.

Simply as that, one can choose to consider Marx’s (not merely) theoretical development as development, his theory being more precise and rich during the course of his works: as the ‘deepening of an original insight rather than an abandonment of it’ (Gunn); ‘a more concrete and historical sense of alienation’ (Aufheben)… Objection!

Let us not confuse ‘alienated labour’ as it functions in the Manuscripts and the alienation of labour that we will find in the Grundrisse… or in Capital. In the first case, alienated labour is the self-movement of the human essence as generic being; in the second, it is no longer a question of human essence, but of historically determined social relations, in which the worker is separated in part or in whole from the conditions of his labour, of his product and of his activity itself… (TC, in Aufheben no 12)

We are here facing a wholly covered way of arguing: TC admonishes us not to ‘confuse’ the concept of alienation before and after 1844–1845; however, some extent of comparison seems necessary to me. (N.b. We follow TC’s critique of the concept of alienation and human nature as immanent in the individual, something aprioristic, a-historical – idealistic. We follow their critique of Feuerbach and those ultra-leftists who bring forward this perspective. What we are trying to say, though, is that this doesn’t boil down to a critique of the Marx of 1844! We think Marx in 1844 had moved beyond this approach already.) In its turn, it seems to me it has affected also Marcel in his settling the account with Marxism’s ‘myth about the proletariat’ and his notion of Aufhebung. Throughout his life, Marx used the terminology of bourgeois philosophy and political economy, and he gave their concepts and categories a more adequate content (something also we are obliged to do). This may very well be one of the sources of the ‘distortion’ of the Second International et al. This ‘absurd distortion’, however, is historical, not merely spiritual.

We have now chosen, despite TC’s admonishment, to cite but a few ‘late’ passages where alienation and human nature occur in the midst of Marx’s ‘scientology’, and we do this to illustrate to what extent it is absurd to stress some ‘epistemological break’ between 1844 and 1845:

The realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production. Just as the savage must wrestle with Nature to satisfy his wants, to maintain and reproduce life, so must civilised man, and he must do so in all social formations and under all possible modes of production. With his development this realm of physical necessity expands as a result of his wants; but, at the same time, the forces of production which satisfy these wants also increase. Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature. But it nonetheless still remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working-day is its basic prerequisite. (Capital Vol. III)

The saving of labour time [is] equal to an increase of free time, i.e. time for the full development of the individual, which in turn reacts back upon the productive power of labour as itself the greatest productive power. From the standpoint of the direct production process it can be regarded as the production of fixed capital, this fixed capital being man himself. (Grundrisse)

Therefore, those who demonstrate that the productive force ascribed to capital is a displacement, a transposition of the productive force of labour, forget precisely that capital itself is essentially this displacement, this transposition, and that wage labour as such presupposes capital, so that, from its standpoint as well, capital is this transubstantiation; the necessary process of positing its own powers as alien to the worker. Therefore, the demand that wage labour be continued but capital suspended is self-contradictory, self-dissolving. (Grundrisse)

Marx formulates the latter theme also in the first volume of his Capital, where it reads that the economical forms are verrückte Formen. Backhaus, in Between Philosophy and Science (in Open Marxism vol. I), notes the two-fold dimension of the German verrückt; it both means ‘absurd’ (Capital, Penguin) and ‘transposed’ in a spatial sense. In Grundrisse it reads reine Verrücktheit, and a Transposition der Produktivkraft der Arbeit (see quote above); sinnlich übersinnlich Ding, a sensuous super-sensuous thing (Capital). ‘All the powers of labour project themselves as powers of capital, just as all the value-forms of the commodity do as forms of money’ (Capital). This absurd transposition is ‘eine aus dem ökonomischen Prozeß selbst herauswachsende Verrückung’ (Grundrisse), i.e. a distortion that grows from the economical process itself. As we, also then inspired by Backhaus, wrote in our Introduction to no 6, the categories of political economy are socially valid, i.e. objective forms of thought, thus they are historical valid, if, however, not used in bourgeois ideology as historical in the sense ‘historically transitory’, ‘disappearing’.

When it comes to forces of production / relations of production, what is the contradiction between them if not the expression of alienated labour, since the relations of production are the social relations between producers (at a high level of abstraction) and the main force of production, as Marx says, is ‘man himself’ (Grundrisse). What’s at stake is not essentially the clash between technology and human relationships at a certain point in history, but, simply (as for example Marcel and Panzieri have stressed), alienated labour that clashes with itself in its differentiated moments at a certain point in time.

Alienation and exploitation: versus, or qua?

TC, in their polemic with Aufheben, has stressed the opposition between alienation and exploitation. But, with F. Shortall, I’d pose their relation as the latter being the historical expression of the former:

… Marx’s critique of political economy is driven forward by the very ontological question of how, in the social forms and categories historically specific to the bourgeois epoch, the process of human productive activity becomes at one and the same time a process of alienation and reification. (The Incomplete Marx)

What is more important, however, is the status of ‘exploitation’. On the one hand Marcel writes that the ‘struggle against exploitation … is more than the immediate wage labour struggle’ (in ‘We are the parasites’, in the journal Kolla!). On the other, in his discussion on crisis, ‘total capital is vitalised by the class struggle of the proletariat, at least if this class struggle is limited to a question about exploitation, the price of labour-power, etc’ (my emphasis). The same problem with ‘entities’ we find on the same page where enterprises have faced ‘distress’ and ‘extinction’ and ‘entire economies of different countries has crashed because of depressions, class struggle and/or war’ (my emphasis).12 (But: ‘class struggle is not independent from economy or total capital’.) Is it, however, adequate to use the terms ‘exploitation’ and ‘class struggle’ as entities with the same power as depressions, war, the price of labour-power, ‘etc.’? Or should we rather consider exploitation / class struggle as much more fundamental categories expressing the essence of capital? I’d vote for the latter. TC, as it seems to me, has an adequate approach when criticizing Aufheben’s Decadence trilogy: ‘On one side the crisis, on the other the class struggle; a meeting of divergent interests shaping capital’s path, the development of capital and the crisis are not understood in themselves as class struggle’ (in Aufheben no 11). And: ‘The tendential fall in the rate of profit became immediately a contradiction between classes and not that which triggers it, as always remained the case with Mattick…’ (Ibid).

The double character of labour

I’m now approaching the kernel of my reply, and, at least implicitly, a more adequate understanding of capital / class struggle as such (which, after all, is what we are discussing). The double character of the worker is not a role to be chosen before different sorts of activities, for example ones morning injection of consciousness, but something appearing in given situations based on the situation as an ensemble of social relations. The double character is an expression of the processing (dialectical) totality/contradiction and is produced in and by this very contradiction – what should belong to the ABC of ‘Marxism’. It does not have to be a ‘theoretical parallelism’, but, indeed, dialectic, no matter how many a ‘genus’ having reduced it to dualism/parallelism. Cf. Marx emphasis in the opening quote. It seems to me that Marcel, to some extent, suffers from a categorical stiffness that don’t grasp this double character as process, i.e. how the proletariat at one and the same time (which side that ‘dominates’ is determined by the given situation) is ‘labour-power’ and ‘gravedigger’. We don’t here deal with any psychologizing, individualizing ‘role theory’ (á la Butler). I could even allow myself to charge Marcel himself, in his specification of the two dimensions of communisation, of putting forward a ‘theoretical parallelism’.

The double character, indeed, is problematic, not the least for Marcel. On several occasions in his essay he uses the expression ‘in but against’ instead of ‘in-and-against’; I’d prefer the latter. It seems to me that Marcel’s ‘but’ is yet another expression of his lack of understanding of the ‘double character’ of labour / the worker. This double character is not two a priori poles ‘in themselves’, but is determined by the capitalist class antagonism, which in its turn is the result of alienated labour; which side that has hegemony are once again determined by the situation (=class struggle) as a totality (ensemble of social relations). What ‘pole’ we as communists try to shed some more light on is determined by our intentions, but we must be well aware of what this ‘dissolution … within the present society’ (Marx) is constituted by, its internal relation to the present state of things we are engaged in revolutionizing: ‘Our task is to stress the undermining side, and at the same time be aware of – and try to counter-act – what maintains the system’ (FS, riff-raff no 1, ‘Contradictions in the Welfare State’). From our understanding of a situation in its totality (we only do the best we can, though) can we measure apparently single (‘particular’) events. Activity in itself (a strike, some stolen toilet-paper, etc.) can’t be measured a priori (however, things would be a lot easier), but must be seen as the moment of social totality it is after all.

Autonomy and ‘external dimension’

One of the (seven) pillars of Marcel’s wisdom is its effort to specify the mode(s) of appearance of the communization process. It all turns out to be a bit ambiguous, though:

On the one hand we have communisation as internal movement in the class struggle, and on the other the external dimension of communisation. These two moments are intertwined and often simultaneous, thus they do not imply any temporal difference. It has not to be that movement is happening before constitution, they are rather simultaneous processes. What is important to stress is that they are not deduced from each other. Since movement and dimension are produced by different forms of practice. However, the internal movement can be developed and advanced if the external expression of communisation is given, just like formal domination precedes real domination. The external dimension of communisation, thus, is determined by class struggle, i.e. communisation as internal movement. The internal movement is the negation, hence the movement of the proletariat within but against capital (de-objectification and de-subjectification), while the external dimension is the result of a purely constitutive practice. The latter must be given by the former having produced a will by people to leave the old world. This will, or rather desire, that constitute the dimensional character of communisation, grows ‘spontaneously’ and ‘unconsciously’, and it happens exclusively simultaneously with the destructive practices. Once again, it is not as such that first the proletariat destroys capitalism and then builds communism, in reality the two forms of communisation are exclusively simultaneous, which makes it difficult to separate them. The unconscious constitution of non-capitalist outsides has hitherto meant that the dimensional existence of communisation has been destroyed by internal limits, or the capital relation has succeeded in enclosing its outsides.

On the one hand they are ‘intertwined and often simultaneous’, but (and this is ‘important’) they are ‘are not deduced from each other’ since they are ‘produced by different forms of practice’. On the other hand ‘the internal movement can be developed and advanced if the external expression of communisation is given… The external dimension of communisation … is determined by class struggle, i.e. communisation as internal movement’. The external dimension must be ‘given by the former having produced a will [‘desire’] by people to leave the old world’. Indeed it is ‘difficult to separate them’. Ever more so since ‘hitherto … the dimensional existence of communisation has been destroyed by internal limits, or the capital relation has succeeded in enclosing its outsides’. Make sense of this if you can! But also ‘pockets of resistance’ are ‘deduced’ from capital’s blood-drained parka.

Capitalism must be attacked from the outside, through the escape from capital (my italics).

← ‘Attacked from the outside’


‘the escape from’ →

… and never shall they meet!

Why ‘return from the future’, if we understand it as ‘escape qua attack’ – if we once and for all have left the mad dog to die by itself? Is it to get the work done properly, as the mafiosos of revolution?

At the same time the external dimension, i.e. the constitution of ‘new non-mercantile relations’ through ‘“outsides” of capital [being] created in the struggle of the proletariat’, must be ‘the product of immediate and autonomous practice’, i.e. by already liberated, or perhaps never capitalistically structured, practice. Let’s lift ourselves by our hair; communism, thus, as ‘a “mechanical” product’, ‘something created artificially’. No(more)n-mercantile relations are constituted by the struggle of the proletariat as the product of autonomous practice – that is the tautology of capital. ‘These outsides, however, are always surrounded’. Damn sure; talking of important ‘howevers’. As a matter of fact totally determined and circumscribed by capital; perhaps what Stalin would have labelled ‘socialism in one dimension’. ‘This escape from the dialectics of capital is produced by actual peoples’ opposition to capital, not by itself’; despite this we have just learned that communism is a ‘“mechanical” product’, something produced ‘artificially’.

If we are to believe Bonefeld (in ‘Human Practice and Perversion: Beyond Autonomy and Structure’), it seems to me, we may find, at least partially, the inspiration to Marcel’s ‘third (‘external’) dimension’ in Negri and his talk of ‘authentical subjectivity’, i.e. a place outside of the class relations already liberated from capital; the proletariat becomes a ‘self-constituting revolutionary subject’, its concrete existence being ‘auto-valorization’. However, this approach ‘neglects the forms in and through which labour exists in capitalism. The essentialisation of the subject remains abstract insofar as its social existence obtains outside society’. Thus, we are given an example of how:

… the internal relation between capital and labour is transformed into a relation of mere opposition, thus reducing the internal relation between form and materiality to a simple juxtaposition of opposition. (Bonefeld)

Capital is no longer seen as the mode of existence of labour. Rather it is seen as an entity confronted by its own substance; i.e. a ‘dualism between capital and labour … founded on the notion that value is being “deconstructed” through labour’s refusal to participate in capital’s own project’.

Contrary to seeing the relation between capital and labour as a social relation qua contradiction in and through the forms constituted by this relation itself, the insistence on labour as merely ‘against’ capital dismisses dialectics as a concept that moves within, and is a moment of, its object. … The relationship between structure and struggle is merely conceived of as a relation of cause and effect: i.e. the disruptive and revolutionary power of the working class causes disruption and crisis to which, in turn, capital responds by reimposing its domination over labour. (Bonefeld)

The question about living ‘authentically’ non-capitalist also connotes the experimenting by the situationists in living differently. (Vaneigem even wrote a Traite on this.) But, as Dauvé wrote in his ‘Critique of the Situationist International’:

Vaneigem’s book was a difficult work to produce because it cannot be lived, threatened with falling on the one hand into a marginal possibilism and on the other into an imperative which is unrealizable and thus moral. … Like every morality, Vaneigem’s position was untenable and had to explode on contact with reality.

We neither can nor wishes to produce Traites and ‘“Comtist” recipies’. As Dauvé stresses, in ‘For a World Without Moral Order’, there are but a few general principles:

[O]utside of a few simple principles – not to participate in the machinery of mystification or repression (neither cop nor star), not to pursue a career – one can’t claim to precisely and permanently define the forms of refusal. For radical critique, there is no decent behavior. There is only some things more indecent than others and certain behaviors that mock theory. Thinking of oneself as revolutionary in a non-revolutionary period… What counts is less the result of this contradiction – unavoidably fragmented and crippling – than the contradiction itself, the tension of refusal.

(By the way: The talk about ‘outsides’ and ‘withdrawal’ lead me to think about Mészáros’s discussion about the increasingly dominating current within ‘modern bourgeois philosophy’, with its ‘aristocratic contempt, idealizing “withdrawal” and “contemplative” idleness’. Making a list of names, including Shopenhauer, Kirkegaard, Ortega y Gasset, Gabriel Marcel [sic] and Hannah Arendt. However! Marcel’s theoretical attempts are far more sophisticated and honest.)

Strikes, refusal of work in general, such as absenteeism, leading a student’s life to avoid wage-labour, etc., being reluctant to make a career, pile up commodities, eat meat, live hetero-normatively, you name it, and even what has been labelled ‘faceless resistance’, are quantitative-qualitative expressions of refusal. These expressions, as moments of the communization process, may evolve to become attacks if and when they are being generalised. I would prefer to reverse Marcel’s thesis, and maintain that even if the two moments of his scheme are ‘often simultaneous’, attack is preceded by refusal, for example that a necessary attack on the state is preceded by a strike movement, etc. (and we are back at the old shit once again…).

The specification remains to be done.

And today; what is Lenin doing in Scandinavia?

One thing I can’t really understand is what Marcel writes in footnote 1 – I assume, however, that he slipped on his keyboard.

He tells us that it would be ‘teleological’ to ‘today search for the material means to realise the society of tomorrow’. But if, how can we talk about, and try to analyse, the ‘real movement’ ‘before our eyes’, the ‘dissolution … within the present society’, etc.? How can we make use of and practice the concept of ‘class composition’ and ‘workers’ inquiries’? But compare this with the following:

The only interesting communication from a revolutionary point of view is the one that happens between people that try to break lose from the old world. This dialogue is the dialogue on the tactics and strategy of the forming of coming communities and the realisation of new forms of desire.

And also the following, where the poor baby our Pyrrhus the teleologist just threw out with the bathwater returns from the cold:

The two appearances of communisation thus demands two forms of activity from revolutionaries: both the immediate and direct commitment in class struggle and also the attempts to produce terrain and spaces already today (if only in theory), which can bring us away from the dialectics of capital.

Can we today ‘search for the material means to realise the society of tomorrow’, or should we not, in order to avoid ‘all teleology and metaphysics’? If yes, is it a teleology we can live with? I suppose Marcel agrees with me. We’ll have to live the ‘tension of refusal’, however well aware of the capitalist context that structures also this tension and what might generalise it; the future does not stand and fall with our individual efforts; we don’t prescribe any Comtist-Vaneigemian Traites – we’re trying to keep alienation on arm’s length13.

Finale: in the beginning was the concept?

To me, Marcel is fighting the myth of a myth. I think he wastes a very interesting discussion and theorization in his eagerness to come up with something new, ‘authentic’ and ‘real’. He offers us a drink of equal parts of philosophy and sociology, without shaking it properly (i.e. without finding the internal dialectical link between them). The result is an eclectical ‘aggregate’ of references – lack of dialectics. I don’t share Marcel’s settling the account with the ‘myth of the proletariat’ and at the same time maintain the (same) ‘critique of political economy’: if we were to follow his proposal, even the latter would be reduced to a ‘category’ in the (purely) idealist sense.

Just as Leviathan is but the nominal title of Hobbes’s political work, so Capital is only nominally the subject of Marx’s new economic theory. Its real theme is labour both in its present-day economic form of subjugation by capital and in its development, through the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat, to a new directly social and socialist condition. (Karl Korsch, Karl Marx)
October 2005


1. By Marcel, riff-raff no 7, 2005. What follows is a summary of my reply to Marcel, ‘Kommunismen som vägran, och som attack’, published in riff-raff no 8. References to Swedish writers are left out.

2. C.f. François Martin in ‘The Class Struggle and its Most Characteristic Aspects in Recent Years’: ‘[T]he failure of a movement is itself an adequate demonstration of its limitations’, The Eclipse and the Re-emergence of the communist movement.

3. C.f. the correspondence with Gilles Dauvé in riff-raff no 7 (2005)

4. What was the announced, though implicit – to say the least –, theme for the last issue of riff-raff.

5. In another text, ‘Capital as Subject’, written during a public discussion on the internet, however, Marcel writes, when discussing the ‘critical-negative dimension’ of the critique of political economy, that it ‘may be teleology, but a necessary teleology if one is to work for communism’. Cf. Mészáros on ‘open teleology’ later on.

6. In another passage Marcel writes about ‘the finite, specific proletariat’s relation to the transhistorical abstractions that are very concrete during the entire history of capitalism; for example the value form, value, abstract labour, etc.’ So the latter are ‘transhistorical abstractions’?

7. See also note 55 in Marramao’s essay: ‘Separated from the structural analysis of capitalist development and from the consequent critical reflection on the logical apparatus of the Marxist categories in relation to the changed morphology of the mode of production, the theory of revolution ends up wavering impotently between the extreme poles of dogmatism and empiricism’.

8. Lenin made a note when reading Hegel and ran into this passage: ‘Transition … expounded very obscurely’ (quoted in Gunn 1992); nevertheless he meant that you must have wholly understood Hegel’s Logik to understand Capital.

9. C.f. Marramao’s critique of Korsch inability ‘to grasp the practical and political function the dialectical mode of exposition as distinct from the “method of research”’, since, for Korsch, theory was merely reflection, thus it could not be ‘the theory of theory of proletarian and communist revolution (since the latter has not yet occurred)’.

10. For this discussion, see Mészáros, Marx’s Theory of Alienation, to which I owe a great deal…

11. Once again, see Mészáros.

12. Cf. the letter by Grossmann to Mattick, June 21, 1931: ‘Class struggle alone is not enough. The will to overthrow is not enough’ (my translation).

13. However, we are not saying there are non-alienated areas within capitalism – ‘arm’s length’ is to be regarded as an illustration ;-)

riff-raff no 8  —  riff-raff.se