Communization and History: Thoughts about the debate

Xavier Girrard

I.

Supposing that I would be too subjectivist and TC too objectivist, then it would be impossible to combine these two mistakes and look for an adequate solution half way between them. You never correct an error by adding the symetrically opposed (and symetrically wrong) error, only by finding whatever is logically at fault at the basis of both. You couldn’t balance a partly idealistic-humanist method with a structuralist-logical method, and approach the truth by a sensible combination of the two. – Gilles Dauvé1)

As Dauvé correctly notes, the point is not to discover a middle ground between these two positions, but to supersede their problematic altogether. Because it was the question of history that initially exposed the inherent contradiction between them, it is not surprising that it is history again that reveals the inadequacies of both positions. The disagreements between Troploin and Théorie Communiste emerge from the manner in which they comprehend the relationship between communist theory, the cycle of struggle as a specific moment of the real movement, and the historical moment itself, which essentially means the manner in which they comprehend history itself.

Dauvé argues that while communism has always been a possibility, its form of appearance has nonetheless always been necessarily determined by the material conditions of each historical moment:

In the 19th century, and even at the time of the first world war, the material conditions of communism were still to be created, at least in some countries (France, Italy, Russia, etc.). A communist revolution would first have had to develop productive forces, to put the petite bourgeoisie to work, to generalize industrial labor, with the rule: no work, no food (of course this only applied to those able to work).2)

And again:

Whatever the situation may have been 50 or 100 years ago, the present revolutionary movement does not aim to bring about the conditions of communism; these have been fully created by capital. Our objective is the immediate communisation of society.3)

Because the real movement is historically contingent, its immediate tasks, methods, and forms of struggle will always vary according to the changing historical conjuncture. Consequently, the historical realization of the real movement is variable. But, as Dauvé argues later, while its forms may vary, its essence does not:

If the ‘being’ of the proletariat theorized by Marx is not just metaphysics, its content is independent of the forms taken by capitalist domination. The tension between the submission to work and the critique of work has been active since the dawn of capitalism. Of course the realization of communism depends on the historical moment, but its deep content remains invariant in 1796 and in 2002.4)

And just as with the content of the real movement, so too with its theory:

I feel the essential has been laid down in the 1840s. Not everything: the destruction of the State, the critique of the workers' movement, the understanding of revolution as communization, these positions only became clear later, and some only in the past 40 or 50 years or so.5)

It is as though Dauvé arrived at his theory by cutting up history and haphazardly gluing some of its pieces together: the essential content of the real movement is situated at 1796, the essentials of the theory are situated in the 1840s, and its forms of realization are said to vary according to the historical moment. But of course, and as Dauvé himself recognizes, historical moments supersede themselves by flowing into one another: because the material conditions of 1848 are no longer the material conditions of the present, the real movement has also changed along with its corresponding theoretical articulations. To reconcile the invariance of his theoretical position with a necessarily diachronic conception of history, Dauvé has no choice but to simply redefine subsequent theoretical changes as mere revisions or additions to the essential theory established in the 1840s. Dauvé freezes the communist theory of one historical moment into an absolute and transhistorical communist theory, but admits, as one necessarily must, that each new clarification to the theory only expands the essential. History is abolished.

Once it has been abstracted from history, the theory can only congeal into ideology. The result, as TC remark, is Dauvé work, When Insurrections Die: a fundamentally ahistorical communist theory that serves as a standard of measurement for the judgment of the real movement in past historical moments.6) And of course, everything fails because nothing can conform to the normative imperatives demanded by a chimerical theory torn from the fabric of history. TC summarize: “When we say that revolution and communism can only be immediate communization, that doesn’t mean that communism has finally presented itself today as it always really was or as it always should have been.”7)

Dauvé fractures the theory, the content of the real movement, and the historical moments such that history itself is rendered meaningless. TC avoids this by historicizing communism so that a specific set of communist theories necessarily correspond to a specific cycle of struggle that is itself determined by the historically specific dimensions of the mutually involved structural relationship between capital and labor. This is certainly an advance: in relating a cycle of struggle and its parallel sets of theories to a particular historical moment, TC is able to comprehend the communism of that moment in terms of the material conditions which determine it, and not from the perspective of a purportedly essential position that can hover outside of history and pass normative judgments. But in spite of recognizing that each historical conjuncture determines its own communist theory, in arguing that the form which communism must necessarily assume in our historical moment is that form which necessarily overcomes the dialectic of capital, TC abstracts the theory of their moment as the absolute theory. TC produces a total history where the necessary production of communism, as determined by the current cycle of struggle, is neatly situated as its end.

But communism as the definitive overcoming of the historical dialectic of capital has not yet been produced. A total history of communism cannot be constructed until the actual production of the authoritative form of communism itself. Indeed, even if the communist revolution were to occur within the very near future, the intricate history that TC has established would still be perforce at variance with the total history that will emerge after the communist revolution simply because the vantage point to comprehend that history will only be afforded after that event. In his comments regarding TC, Dauvé critiques the mistaken attempt to produce this kind of a total history: “There is no privileged time or place, no possible vantage point from which the whole meaning of history could at last be revealed to those who master the right theory. TC offers another example of an understandable but misplaced belief in the power of human thought.”8)

TC’s history, then, precisely because it pretends to a total history that cannot yet be written, is nothing but the justification for their assertion that the relationship between labor and capital has restructured itself to such a state that the resolution of the entire dialectic has become both possible and necessary. For TC, because communism failed previously because it had to fail, the moment when communism becomes possible is by definition the moment when it becomes necessary. Their history is the constructed justification for that necessity.

TC only reconstructs history to prove that communism will be necessarily produced in the present historical moment. One could just as easily restructure history to prove that communism will necessarily not be produced in the present historical moment. Such is the nature of history. For communism, however, the proof of the pudding is not in some constructed genealogy but in its eating.

II.

Whatever happens, every individual is a child of his time; so philosophy too is its own time apprehended in thoughts. – G.W.F. Hegel9)

Because each specific historical moment produces its own specific cycle of struggle and its own specific communist theories, one can only write the communist theory of one’s own time. Communist theory is only a reflective analysis of the current cycle of struggle situated in its historical moment as compared with past cycles of struggles situated in their respective historical moments; since these moments are not discreet points but instead continuous aspects of a unitary movement, communist theory is more specifically the “theoretical expression of a revolutionary process” from a particular historical vantage point.10)

No one can deny that the content and forms of the real movement have changed over time. This is precisely because the material conditions that determine the real movement have themselves changed over time. But this is not to say that each cycle of struggle is wholly independent from those that came before it. Historical moments do not themselves emerge from nowhere, but are instead produced and determined by every preceding historical moment. Because the past is always preserved in the present, there must remain an element of continuity between the various cycles of struggle that compose the real movement and also between the various historical communist theories that comprehend, articulate, develop, and themselves form integral components of that material movement. Dauvé chooses to call this line of continuity the essence or deep content, but mistakenly anchors it to some empirical date abstracted from a history that can by definition only be comprehended in constant process. It is one thing to assert that the history of communism as simultaneously a theory and a real movement possesses an element of continuity; it is quite another to select a specific moment and argue that it was only then that the essential was produced, the totality appeared in embryonic form, and therefore, that subsequent “new” discoveries only serve as further clarifications of the invariantly essential.

Each advance in communist theory neither adds to the essential theory written at some empirically defined point in the past nor represents an absolute break with that past; rather, it determinately negates the past: the totality is not annulled but superseded through its refinement. For instance, the historically determined recognition that communism cannot be, as Marx once famously wrote in the Communist Manifesto, the “centralization of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly,”11) but rather, must be the complete abolition of the state, does not abolish communist theory altogether. It produces a new communist theory determined by new material conditions that represents neither total rupture nor total continuity, but both as dialectical process. The essential is the coherence of the process itself.

The historical moments determined by the capitalist mode of production are the products of the reciprocal implication of labor and capital. Each of these moments produces its own cycle of struggle and its own reflective constellation of communist theories which together take themselves as the authoritative communism. In and through the material struggle, the latent but always dynamic tension between the two poles in the relationship reaches a point of possible break and the validity of the cycle of struggle and its correlated theories is put to the test. If the struggle results in defeat, what that communism had taken to be authoritative for itself is necessarily self-undermined and the relationship between labor and capital is restructured, producing the material ground for a new historical moment and, by consequence, the necessary appearance of a new communism as the totality of a specific cycle of struggle and its corresponding set of theoretical articulations. In TC’s words, “there is no restructuring of the capitalist mode of production without a workers defeat.”12) As the supersession of the previous form, this newer form of reflective communism represents the simultaneous replacement and completion of that previous form because what it takes as authoritative for itself is precisely “that which was necessary to resolve the issues that were self-undermining”13) for the previous form of communism. But through the moment of struggle, the defeat of this newer form of communism produces its own self-undermining conditions and accordingly reconstructs the relationship such that the material conditions of the past are superseded into the material conditions of the future, producing yet another historical moment and, by consequence, the necessary appearance of yet another form of communism. The internal motor driving this progression is the class struggle; the unfolding of various appearances of communism is the material education of the real movement; and the movement of this real movement, as the process of loss and reconstitution, as the “path of despair,”14) is the experience of the real movement.15)

Certainly, contingent reasons may prevent this historical progression from culminating in its resolution. Terry Pinkard explains the logic of this methodology through a simple analogy:

Just as I may fail to complete a certain line of thought for contingent reasons – I may die before I finish it, I may be rendered incapable of completing it, or I may come to find that completing that line of thought is not important to me anymore – a historical progression may for contingent reasons fail to be completed. Contingent failure to complete a line of thought does not, however, show that such and such was not therefore required to complete that line of thought.16)

Moreover, this movement does not imply that the continual emergence and supersession of various appearances of communism at sequential historical moments is but a tragic routine without a definitive end. To begin with, because it, by definition, represents the resolution of the inadequacies of the previous appearances, the communism of the present is automatically a more refined communism. But on a more historical level, it is empirically evident that every restructuring of the relationship between capital and labor develops their dialectic to still higher levels. As a result of the defeat of all prior cycles of struggle, the capitalist mode of production is presently far more advanced than previously: spheres of once autonomous activity are now entirely subsumed under capital; more phenomena have become exchangeable in comparison to previous moments; the cycle of the reproduction of labor power is now wholly integrated into the cycle of the reproduction of capital, surplus-value is extracted far more fluidly, and localized poles of antagonistic accumulation have given way to a more globalized capital. Likewise, the development of the dialectic is simultaneously the development of its contradiction; forms of struggle are far more advanced than previously: workers struggle against the union and the party as aspects of capital, wildcat strikes abound, the council has lost its role as a panacea, and workers’ identity is increasingly ignored or directly assaulted by workers themselves.

If contingent factors for failure are avoided, this process, of which the communism of the present is only a moment, will drive itself towards its own resolution: the conditions for the moment of supersession are implied in its very structure. But the guarantee of this transcendence can only appear with the self-production of the authoritative mode of communism. Each form of communism can produce a narrative, through which the present is recognized as an advance over the past, but the progression “will only be an education if the process can conclude successfully.”17) Its verification can only be its moment of production: that is, the moment when a specific appearance no longer carries the counter-revolution in its essence.

This produced overcoming, if it arrives, will be the annulment of class struggle as the self-generating force moving the entire dialectic. Itself a product of the dialectic of capital, because class struggle is both that which can either develop the entire dialectic to still higher levels, or that which can point outside of it as its moment of overcoming, communism is necessarily the negation of class struggle. But because class struggle is the immanent mechanism that moves history, its abolition is therefore the abolition of history, or more precisely, the supersession of the pre-history of humanity.

III.

The emergence of Marxist theory is, in Hegelian-Marxist terms, only the “other side” of the emergence of the real proletarian movement; it is both sides together that comprise the concrete totality of the historical process. – Karl Korsch18)

Communist theory is a necessary product of the capitalist mode of production. Just as the dialectic between capital and labor generates the real movement as its projective tension, so too does it necessarily generate a constellation of theories that reflect on this movement in its total context. But as products of the capitalist mode of production the two are unavoidably separated because capital is itself the separation of theory from practice, of material labor from intellectual labor, of reified activities from the whole:

In a non-revolutionary period, revolutionary workers, isolated in their factories, do their best to expose the real nature of capitalism and the institutions which support it (unions, “workers’” parties). They usually do this with little success, which is quite normal. And there are revolutionaries (workers and non-workers) who read and write, who do their best to provide a critique of the whole system. They usually do this with little success, which is also quite normal.19)

The division between material struggle and intellectual struggle is reunited only through the moment of rupture as practical intervention: separations dissolve as isolated practices become simply different aspects of a total practice. In the interim, the task of communist theory, as the collective memory of the proletariat, is to give expression to the real movement as the simultaneous clarification of its tasks. It does this both by practically studying, confronting, and interpreting the present cycle of struggle in comparison with previous moments of the real movement in their historical contexts, and by perpetually working-through itself and the present body of communist theories of which it forms an integral part. In narrating the struggles and theories of the present and the past, the theory of the present attempts to resolve what it, from the perspective afforded by its own vantage point, thinks were the contradictions of those past appearances of communism. In this sense, the communist theory of the present takes for its task the reassurance of the authoritativeness of the present cycle by completing the contradictions of the past.

But because the proof of this authoritativeness arrives only with actualization of practical revolution, it would be futile to attempt a total reconstruction of the past so as to reassure the authoritativeness of the present. There is no point in producing an absolute narrative to justify the present appearance of communism because, while the communist theory of the present may resolve all of the perceived contradictions of a prior appearance, there may be others which exist beyond the perspective of the present. Indeed, some of those very inadequacies may have been preserved in the present moment and can only be revealed when, through practice, the present communism undermines itself. Each inadequacy can only be comprehended in its total inadequacy with the realization of the authoritative mode of communism.

But there is also no point in embarking on the opposite method by reassuring the present communism’s claim to authoritativeness by arguing that communist theory as a process is gradually approaching the essential tasks of a prior historical moment in teasing out the original contradictions of that theory as time moves forward. To do so would be to recast communist theory in the role of a doctor whose only task is to bandage, resuscitate, or supplement that essential appearance of communist theory with the findings and advancements of subsequent historical moments.

Troploin produces a self-conscious ahistoricism while Théorie Communiste produces an unself-conscious historicism.20) As a communist theory of the present, the theory articulated by Théorie Communiste is unselfconscious because its very structure precludes itself from comprehending the possibility of its in-authoritativeness; but their theory is simultaneously historicist because it comprehends communist theory as a dynamic historical process composed of particular moments while recognizing itself as the most current moment of that very process. As a communist theory of the present, the theory articulated by Troploin is self-conscious because its open structure allows itself to comprehend the possibility of its in-authoritativeness; but that same theory is simultaneously ahistoricist because it comprehends communist theory as an invariant program composed of assimilated theoretical contributions from various historical moments.

In contradistinction to both these positions, the theory of our time must be self-consciously historicist. Like Troploin, it must recognize that the proof of its authoritativeness cannot emerge from the theory itself, but will come through the moment of practical intervention; and like Théorie Communiste, it must recognize the coherency of each historical moment as an aspect of a continuous process. This theory does not approach history only to rewrite it in such a way that all previous appearances of communism can be restructured to prove the necessity of the present’s authoritativeness, but neither does it approach history only to pass normative judgment on previous appearances of communism by explaining, in terms of the present, what they should have done in the past to have avoided defeat.

It would seem, however, that a self-consciously historicist communism would be a contradiction in its very terms. On the one hand, because the revolutionaries of every cycle of struggle are prevented from comprehending the contradictions of their own appearance of communism, they are always compelled to struggle with the belief that their communism is necessarily the authoritative communism. TC exemplifies this position for the present cycle:

We think the situation in which we find ourselves: our cycle of struggle carries such a content and such a structure of the confrontation between capital and the proletariat, and for us it is the communist revolution, because for us it is rigorously impossible to envisage other forms and other contents.21)

But the firm belief in the definitiveness of the present appearance of communism is not a sentiment unique to the present cycle of struggle; it forms a necessary attribute of all previous cycles. In retrospectively discerning the contradictions that undermined every previous form of communism, the communism of the present, by conceptualizing itself as the resolution of those very contradictions, takes itself to be authoritative. Indeed, it was precisely the self-undermining of those previous appearances that produced the grounds for the authoritativeness of the present. Writing in the aftermath of the Spartacist uprising, Rosa Luxemburg penned her last words before her capture and execution the following day:

Where would we be today without those “defeats,” from which we draw historical experience, understanding, power and idealism? Today, as we advance into the final battle of the proletarian class war, we stand on the foundation of those very defeats; and we cannot do without any of them, because each one contributes to our strength and understanding.22)

But this revolution had already undermined itself by the time Luxemburg had finished her article: the “final battle” would have to be deferred. Although it is clear that “the failure of a movement is itself an adequate demonstration of its limits,” Luxemburg’s optimistic announcement confirms that these limitations only become apparent after its defeat: the communists of the early twentieth century believed that communism had finally become a possibility, but it was only their failure and the subsequent vantage point afforded by that very failure that allowed the communists of a later historical moment to comprehend that despite the beliefs of those in the twentieth century, communism was in fact not possible at that specific historical conjuncture.23)

This is only a contradiction in thought. Unlike a theory of knowledge, the communists of a specific historical moment can only know if their Notion is adequate to their Object through practical activity. In other words, because communism is a real movement and not a speculative philosophy, the “dispute over the reality or the non-reality” of the authoritativeness of the communism of the present as “separated from the practical struggle can be only an ideological mystery.”24) And, as Marx himself showed, “all mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.”25) Consequently, because it is only in the material struggle to produce communism that one can comprehend whether the communism of the present is indeed the definitive overcoming of the dialectic, a self-consciously historicist communist theory can simultaneously assert the necessity of the present movement’s authoritativeness while recognizing the possibility of its failure.

1) Gilles Dauvé, “Correspondence Between Parts of the riff-raff-collective and Gilles Dauvé” riff-raff 7 (2005), http://www.riff-raff.se/en/7/gd_corr.php.
2) Jean Barrot and François Martin, “Eclipse and Re-Emergence of the Communist Movement,” libcom.org, http://libcom.org/library/eclipse-re-emergence-giles-dauve-1 (Revised Edition).
3) Jean Barrot and François Martin, Eclipse and Re-Emergence of the Communist Movement (Detroit: Black & Red, 1974), 7.
4) Gilles Dauvé, “Love of Labor, Love of Labor Lost…,” Endnotes 1 (2008): 131.
5) , 8) Gilles Dauvé, “Correspondence Between Parts of the riff-raff-collective and Gilles Dauvé,” riff-raff 7 (2005), http://www.riff-raff.se/en/7/gd_corr.php.
6) Cf. Théorie Communiste, “Normative History and the Communist Essence of the Proletariat,” Endnotes 1, (2008): 7689.
7) Théorie Communiste, “Much Ado About Nothing,” Endnotes 1, (2008): 192.
9) G. W. F. Hegel, Hegel: The Essential Writings, ed. Frederick G. Weiss (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1974), 264.
10) Karl Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy (London: NLB, 1970), 62.
11) Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” Collected Works, vol. 6, Marx–Engels, 18451848 (London: International Publishers, 1976), 505.
12) Théorie Communiste, “Much Ado About Nothing,” Endnotes 1, (2008): 160.
13) , 16) Terry Pinkard, Hegel’s Phenomenology: The Sociality of Reason (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 12.
14) G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 49.
15) A path of despair, because, as Luxemburg sorrowfully noted, “To date, revolutions have given us nothing but defeats,” Rosa Luxemburg, “Order Prevails in Berlin”, marxists.org, http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1919/01/14.htm. Originally published on 14 January 1919.
17) J. M. Bernstein, “Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: Syllabus”, bernsteintapes.com, http://www.bernsteintapes.com/lectures/Hegel/HegelPoSSyllabus.pdf.
18) Karl Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy (London: NLB, 1970), 42.
19) Jean Barrot and François Martin, Eclipse and Re-Emergence of the Communist Movement (Detroit: Black & Red, 1974), 85.
20) This is precisely why TC’s criticism of Troploin’s miscomprehension of history is so insightful, whereas Troploin’s criticism of TC’s miscomprehension of the limits and dimensions of theory are equally insightful.
21) Théorie Communiste, “Much Ado About Nothing”, Endnotes 1, (2008): 260.
22) Rosa Luxemburg, “Order Prevails in Berlin,” marxists.org, http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1919/01/14.htm. Originally published on 14 January 1919.
23) Jean Barrot and François Martin, Eclipse and Re-Emergence of the Communist Movement (Detroit: Black & Red, 1974), 69.
24) Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “Theses on Feuerbach,” Collected Works, vol. 5, Marx–Engels, 18451847 (London: International Publishers, 1976), 3.
25) Ibid., 5.