Excellent text from Gilles Dauvé outlining the development of capitalism, and communism as the real movement in everyday life which tends towards the abolition of wage labour.
Communism is not a programme one puts into practice or makes others put into practice, but a social movement. Those who develop and defend theoretical communism do not have any advantages over others except a clearer understanding and a more rigorous expression; like all others who are not especially concerned by theory, they feel the practical need for communism. They have no privilege whatsoever; they do not carry the knowledge that will set the revolution in motion; but, on the other hand, they have no fear of becoming "leaders" by explaining their positions. The communist revolution, like every other revolution, is the product of real needs and living conditions. The problem is to shed light on an existing historical movement.
Communism is not an ideal to be realized: it already exists, not as a society, but as an effort, a task to prepare for. It is the movement which tries to abolish the conditions of life determined by wage-labour, and it will abolish them by revolution. The discussion of communism is not academic. It is not a debate about what will be done tomorrow. It is an integral part of a whole series of immediate and distant tasks, among which discussion is only one aspect, an attempt to achieve theoretical understanding. Inversely, the tasks can be carried out more easily and efficiently if one can answer the question: where are we going?
We will not refute the CPs, the various brands of socialists, the extreme-left, etc., whose programmes merely modernize and democratize all existing features of the present world. The point isn't that these programmes are not communist, but that they are capitalist.
The explanations in this text do not originate in a desire to explain. They would not exist in this form, and a number of people would not have gathered to elaborate and publish them, if the contradictions and the practical social struggles which tear contemporary society apart did not show the new society taking form in the womb of the old, forcing people to be conscious of it.
A) Wage-Labour as a Social Relation
If one looks at modern society, it is obvious that in order to live, the great majority of people are forced to sell their labour power. All the physical and intellectual capacities existing in human beings, in their very personalities, which must be set in motion to produce useful things, can only be used if they are sold in exchange for wages. Labour power is a commodity like all other goods. The existence of exchange and wage-labour seems normal, inevitable. Yet the introduction of wage-labour required violence and was accompanied by social conflicts. The separation of the worker from the means of production, which has become a fact of life, accepted as such, was actually the result of a long evolution, and could only be accomplished by force.
In England, in the Netherlands, in France, from the 16th century on, economic and political violence expropriated craftsmen and peasants, repressed indigence and vagrancy, imposed wage-labour on the poor. In the 20th century, between 1930 and 1950, Russia had to decree a labour code which included capital punishment in order to organize the passage of millions of peasants to industrial wage-labour in a few decades. Seemingly normal facts: that an individual has nothing but his labour power, that he must sell it to an enterprise to be able to live, that everything is a commodity, that social relations revolve around exchange, are the result of a long and violent process.
By means of its school system and its ideological and political life, contemporary society hides the past and present violence on which this situation rests. It hides both its origin and the mechanism which enables it to function. Everything appears to be the result of a free contract in which the individual, as a seller of labour power, encounters the factory, the shop, or the office. The existence of the commodity seems to be an obvious and natural phenomenon. Yet it causes periodic major and minor disasters: goods are destroyed to maintain their prices, existing capacities are not used, while elementary needs are not fulfilled. The two pillars of modern society, exchange and wage-labour, are not only the source of periodic and constant disasters, but have also created the conditions which make another society possible. Most importantly, they compel a large section of the present world to revolt against them, and to realize this possibility: communism.
By definition, all human activity is social. Human life only exists in groups, through numerous forms of association. The reproduction of living conditions is a collective activity from the start: both the reproduction of the human beings themselves and the reproduction of their means of existence. Indeed, what characterizes human society is the fact that it produces and reproduces the material conditions of its existence. Some animals use tools, but only man makes his tools. Between the individual or group and the fulfilment of needs comes the mediation of production, of work, which continually modifies the ways to act in and transform the environment. Other forms of life - bees, for example - make their own material conditions, but, at least as far as man can study them, their evolution seems at a standstill. Work, by contrast, is a continually changing appropriation and assimilation of man's environment. The relation of men to "nature" is also a relation among men and depends on their relations of production, just as the ideas they produce, the way they conceive the world, depend on their production relations.
The transformation of activity accompanies the transformation of the social context in which it takes place, i.e., the relations among people. Production relations into which people enter are independent of their will: each generation confronts technical and social conditions left by previous generations. But it can alter them, up to the limits allowed by the level of the material productive forces. What people call "history" does not achieve anything: history is made by people, but only to the extent that given possibilities allow. This is not to say that each important change in productive forces is automatically and immediately accompanied by a corresponding change in production relations. If this were true, there would be no revolutions. The new society bred by the old can only appear and triumph through a revolution, by destroying the entire political and ideological structure which until then allowed the survival of obsolete production relations.
Wage-labour was once a form of development, but it no longer is; for a long time it has been nothing but a hindrance, even a threat to the very existence of mankind.
What must be exposed, behind the material objects, the machines, the factories, the labourers who work there every day, the things they produce, is the social relation that regulates them, as well as its necessary and possible evolution.
B) Community and the Destruction of Community
Mankind first lived in relatively autonomous and scattered groups, in families (in the broadest sense: the family grouping all those of the same blood), in tribes. Production consisted essentially of hunting, fishing, and gathering. Goods were not produced to be consumed after exchange, after being placed on a market. Production was directly social, without the mediation of exchange. The community distributed what it produced according to simple rules, and everyone directly got what it gave him. There was no individual production, i.e., no separation among individuals who are re-united only after production by an intermediate link, exchange, namely by comparing the various goods produced individually. Activities were decided (actually imposed on the group by necessity) and achieved in common, and their results were shared in common.
Many a "primitive" community could have accumulated surpluses and simply did not bother. As M. Sahlins pointed out, the age of scarcity often meant abundance, with lots of idle time - though that "time" has little relevance to ours. Explorers and anthropologists observed that food search and storing took a rather small portion of the day. "Productive" activity was part of a global relationship to the group and its environment.
Most of humankind, as we know, moved from hunting-gathering into agriculture and ended up developing surpluses, which communities started swapping.
This circulation could only be achieved by exchange, i.e., by taking into account, not in the mind, but in reality, what is common to the various goods which are to be transferred from one place to another. The products of human activity have one thing in common: they are all the result of a certain amount of energy, both individual and social. This is the abstract character of labour, which not only produces a useful thing, but also consumes energy, social energy. The value of a product, independently of its use, is the quantity of abstract labour it contains, i.e., the quantity of social energy necessary to reproduce it. Since this quantity can only be measured in terms of time, the value of a product is the time socially necessary to produce it, namely the average for a given society at a given moment in its history.
With the growth of its activities and needs, the community produces not only goods, but also commodities, goods which have a use value as well as an exchange value. Commerce first appears between communities, then penetrates inside communities, giving rise to specialized activities, trades, socially divided labour. The very nature of labour changes. With the exchange relation, labour becomes double labour, producing both use value and exchange value. Work is no longer integrated into the totality of social activity but becomes a specialized field, separated from the rest of the individual's life. What the individual makes for himself and for the group is separate from what he makes for the purpose of exchange with goods from other communities. The second part of his activity means sacrifice, constraint, waste of time. Society becomes diversified, it separates into various members engaged in different trades, and into workers and non-workers. At this stage the community no longer exists.
The community needs the exchange relation to develop and to satisfy its growing needs. But the exchange relation destroys the community. It makes people see each other, and themselves, only as suppliers of goods. The use of the product I make for exchange no longer interests me; I am only interested in the use of the product I will get in exchange. But for the man who sells it to me, this second use does not matter, for he is only interested in the use value of what I produced. What is use value for the one is only exchange value for the other, and vice versa.1 The community disappeared on the day when its (former) members became interested in each other only to the extent that they had a material interest in each other. Not that altruism was the driving force of the primitive community, or should be the driving force of communism. But in one case the movement of interests drives individuals together and makes them act in common, whereas in the other it individualizes them and forces them to fight against one another. With the birth of exchange in the community, labour is no longer the realization of needs by the collectivity, but the means to obtain from others the satisfaction of one's needs.
While it developed exchange, the community tried to restrain it. It attempted to control or destroy surpluses or to establish strict rules to control the circulation of goods. But exchange triumphed in the end. Wherever it did not, the society ceased to be active, and was eventually crushed by the invasion of merchant society.
As long as goods are not produced separately, as long as there is no division of labour, one cannot compare the respective values of two goods, since they are produced and distributed in common. The moment of exchange, during which the labour times of two products are measured and the products are then exchanged accordingly, does not yet exist. The abstract character of labour appears only when social relations require it. This can only happen when, with technical progress, it becomes necessary for the development of productive forces that men specialize in trades and exchange their products with each other and also with other groups, who have become States. With these two prerequisites value, average labour time, becomes the instrument of measure. At the root of this phenomenon are practical relations among people whose real needs are developing.
Value does not appear because it is a convenient measure. When the social relations of the primitive community are replaced by enlarged and more diversified relations, value appears as an indispensable mediation of human activities. It is not surprising that the average socially necessary labour time should be used as a measure since at this stage labour is the essential element in the production of wealth: it is the one element different tasks have in common: they all have the property of consuming a certain quantity of human labour power, regardless of the particular way in which this power is used. Corresponding to the abstract character of labour, value represents its abstraction, its general and social character, apart from all differences in nature between the objects the labour can produce.
Economic and social progress improves the efficiency of human organization and its capacity to associate the components of the labour process - first of all labour power. Then appears the difference (and the opposition) between workers and non-workers, between those who organize work and those who work. The first towns and great irrigation projects are born out of this increase of productive efficiency. Commerce appears as a special activity: now there are men who do not make a living by producing, but by mediating between the various activities of the separate units of production. A large proportion of goods is nothing but commodities. To be used, to put into practice their use value, their ability to fulfil a need, they must be bought, they must fulfil their exchange value. Otherwise, although they exist as material and concrete objects, they do not exist from the point of view of society. One has no right to use them. This fact proves that the commodity is not just a thing, but first and foremost a social relation ruled by a definite logic, the logic of exchange, and not of the fulfilment of needs. Use value is now just the support of value. Production becomes a sphere distinct from consumption; work becomes a sphere distinct from non-work. Ownership is the legal framework of the separation between activities, between men, between units of production. The slave is a commodity for his owner, who buys a man to make him work.
The existence of a mediation on the level of the organization of production (exchange) is accompanied by the existence of a mediation on the level of the organization of people: the State is indispensable as a force gathering the elements of society, in the interests of the ruling class. Unification is made necessary by the destruction of the coherence of the primitive community. Society is forced to maintain its cohesion by creating an institution which is nourished by it.
Exchange becomes visible and concrete with the birth of money. The abstraction, value, is materialized in money, becomes a commodity, and shows its tendency to become independent, to detach itself from what it comes from and represents: use values, real goods. Compared to simple exchange: x quantity of product A against y quantity of product B, money permits a universalization, where anything can be obtained for a quantity of abstract labour-time crystallized in money. Money is labour-time abstracted from labour and solidified in a durable, measurable, transportable form. Money is the visible, even tangible, manifestation of the common element in all commodities - not two or several commodities, but all possible commodities. Money allows its owner to command the work of others, at any time and anywhere in the world. With money it is possible to escape from the limits of time and space. A tendency towards a universal economy is at work around some great centres from ancient times to the Middle Ages, but it fails to reach its aim. The retreats of the empires, and their destruction, illustrate this succession of failures. Only capitalism creates, from the 16th century on, but mainly in the 19th and 20th centuries, the necessary basis for a durable universal economy.
Capital is a production relation which establishes a completely new and extremely efficient bond between living labour and past labour (accumulated by previous generations). But as with the birth of exchange, the rise of capital is not the result of a decision or a plan, but a consequence of real social relations which lead to a qualitatively new development in certain Western European countries after the Middle Ages.
Merchants had accumulated large sums of money, in various forms, and perfected systems of banking and credit. It was possible to use these sums: the first machines (textile) were invented, and thousands of poor people (former peasants or craftsmen) had lost their instruments of production and were forced to accept the new production relation: wage-labour. The prerequisite was accumulated, stored-up labour in the form of machines (and later, factories). This past labour was to be set in motion by the living labour of those who had not been able to realize such an accumulation of raw materials and means of production. Until then, exchange was neither the motive nor the regulator of production. Commerce alone, simple commodity production (as opposed to capitalist commodity production) could not provide the stability, the durability required by the socialization and unification of the world. This was accomplished by capitalist commodity production, and the means with which it accomplished this consisted of the production which it took over.
The slave did not sell his labour power: his owner bought the slave himself, and put him to work. In capitalism, living labour is bought by the means of production which it sets into motion. The role of the capitalist is not negligible, but quite secondary: "the capitalist as such is only a function of capital," the leader of social production. What is important is the development of past labour by living labour. To invest, to accumulate - these are the mottos of capital (the priority given to heavy industry in all the so-called socialist countries is nothing other than the sign of the development of capitalism). But the aim of capital is not to accumulate use values. Capital only multiplies factories, railways, etc., to accumulate value. Capital is first of all a sum of value, of abstract labour crystallized in the form of money, finance capital, shares, bonds, etc., which tries to increase. A sum x of value must give x + profit at the end of the cycle. To valorize itself, value buys labour power.
This commodity is quite special, as its consumption furnishes work, hence new value; whereas means of production yield no more than their own value. Therefore the use of labour power furnishes a supplementary value. The origin of bourgeois wealth is to be found in this surplus value, in this difference between the value created by the wage-labourer in his work, and the value necessary for the reproduction of his labour-power. Wages only cover the expenses of that reproduction (the means of subsistence of the worker and his family).
It is easy to see from this analysis that the essential fact is not the appropriation of surplus-value by the capitalist as an individual. Communism has nothing to do with the idea that workers have to partially or totally recover the surplus value for themselves, for a simple and obvious reason: some of the resources must be used for the renewal of equipment, for new production, etc. The point is not that a handful of people take a disproportionately large share of the surplus-value. If these people were eliminated, while the rest of the system remained the same, part of the surplus-value would be given to the workers and the rest would be invested in collective and social equipment, welfare, etc.: this is in fact the programme of the left, including the official CPs. Actually the logic of the system of value would always result in the development of production for a maximal valorization. As long as the basis of society is a mechanism mingling two processes, a process of real work, and a process of valorization, value dominates society. The change brought about by capital is to have conquered production, and thus to have socialized the world since the 19th century, with industrial plants, means of transportation, storage, and quick transmission of information. But in the capitalist cycle the fulfilment of needs is only a by-product, and not the driving force of the mechanism. Valorization is the aim: fulfilment of needs is at best a means, since what has been produced must be sold.
The enterprise is the location and the centre of capitalist production; each industrial or agricultural enterprise works as a rallying point for a sum of value looking for an increase. The enterprise must make profits. Here again the law of profit has nothing to do with the action of a few "big" capitalists, and communism does not mean getting rid of fat cigar smokers wearing top hats at horse shows. What matters is not the individual profits made by capitalists, but the constraint, the orientation imposed upon production and society by this system which dictates how to work and what to consume. The whole demagogy about the rich and the poor confuses the issue. Communism does not mean taking money from the rich, nor revolutionaries distributing it to the poor.
Competition takes place among the various enterprises: each fights against the others on the market, each fights to corner the market. We have shown how the various aspects of human activity got separated. The exchange relation increases the division of society into trades, which in turn helps the development of the commodity system. However, as can still be seen nowadays, even in advanced countries, in the countryside for instance, there is no real competition among activities which are separate but stably divided among the baker, the shoemaker, etc. Capitalism is not only a division of society into various trades, but above all a permanent struggle between the various components of industry. Each sum of value exists only against the others. What ideology calls selfishness and the struggle of all against all, is the indispensable complement of a world where one has to fight to be able to sell. Thus economic violence, and armed violence as its consequence, are integral parts of the capitalist system.
Competition had positive effects in the past: it broke the limits of feudal regulations and corporative constraints, and allowed capital to invade the world. It has now become a source of waste, leading both to the development of useless or destructive production the valorization of which is quicker, or to hinder important production, if supply and demand conflict with each other.
Competition is the separation of productive systems into autonomous centres which are rival poles (punkte), each seeking to increase its respective sum of value. Neither "organization" nor "planning" nor any sort of control can bring this to an end. State power and "people's power" are equally incapable of solving this problem. The motive force of competition is not the freedom of individuals, nor even of the capitalists, but the freedom of capital. It can only live by devouring itself. The form destroys its content to survive as a form. It destroys its material components (living labour and past labour) to survive as a sum of value valorizing itself.
Each of the various competing capitals has a particular profit rate. But capitals move from one branch to another, looking for the highest possible rate of profit. They move to the most profitable branch and neglect the others. When this branch is saturated with capital, its profitability decreases and capitals move to another branch (this dynamic is modified, but not abolished, by the establishment of monopolies). This constant process results in the stabilisation of the profit rate around an average rate, in a given society at a definite moment. Each capital tends to be rewarded, not according to the profit rate it realizes in its own enterprise, but according to the average social rate, in proportion to the sum of value invested in the enterprise. So each capital does not exploit its own workers, but the whole capital exploits the whole working class. In the movement of capitals, capital acts and reveals itself as a social power, dominating all society, and thus acquires coherence in spite of the competition which opposes it to itself. It gets unified and becomes a social force. It is a relatively homogeneous totality in its conflicts with the proletariat or with other capitalist (national) units. It organizes the relations and needs of the whole society according to its interests. This mechanism exists in every country: capital constitutes the State and the nation against other national capitals, but also against the proletariat. The opposition of capitalist states turns war into the ultimate means of resolving problems of competition among national capitals.
Nothing changes so long as there are production units trying to increase their respective amounts of value. What happens if the State ("democratic," "workers'," "proletarian," etc.) takes all enterprises under its control, while keeping them as enterprises? Either State enterprises obey the law of profit and value, and nothing changes. Or they do not obey it without destroying it, and then everything goes wrong. 2
Inside the enterprise, organization is rational: capital imposes its despotism on the workers. Outside, on the market, where each enterprise meets the others, order exists only as the permanent and periodical suppression of disorder, accompanied by crises and destruction. Only communism can destroy this organized anarchy, by suppressing the enterprise as a separate entity.
On the one hand capital has socialized the world. All production tends to be the result of the activity of all mankind. On the other hand, the world remains divided into competing enterprises, which try to produce what is profitable, and produce to sell as much as possible. Each enterprise tries to valorize its capital in the best possible conditions. Each tends to produce more than the market can absorb, intends to sell all of it, and hopes that only its competitors will suffer from overproduction. 3
What results is the development of activities devoted to the promotion of sales. Unproductive workers, manual or intellectual, who circulate value, increase in relation to manual or intellectual workers who produce value. The circulation in question is not the physical movement of goods. The transportation industry produces real value, since the simple fact of moving goods from one place to another adds value to them, corresponds to a real change of their use value: the result is that goods are available in a different place from the one where they were manufactured, which of course increases their utility. Circulation refers to value, not to physical displacement. A thing does not actually move, for instance, if its owner changes while it remains in the same warehouse. By this operation, it has been bought and sold, but its use value has not been changed, increased. It is different in the case of transport.
The problems caused by buying and selling, by the realization of the value of the product on the market, create a complex mechanism, including credit, banking, insurance and advertisement. Capital becomes a sort of parasite absorbing a huge and growing part of society's total resources in the costs of the management of value. Bookkeeping, which is a necessary function in any developed social organization, has now become a ruinous and bureaucratic machine overwhelming society and real needs instead of helping to fulfil them. At the same time capital grows more concentrated and centralized: monopolies lessen overproduction problems while further aggravating them. Capital can only get out of this situation through periodic crises, which temporarily solve the problem by re-adjusting supply to demand (only solvent demand, since capitalism only knows one way of circulating products: buying and selling; it does not care if real demand (needs) is not fulfilled; in fact, capital generates underproduction in relation to the real needs it does not fulfil).
Capitalist crises are more than crises of commodities. They are crises which link production to value in such a way that production is governed by value. One can understand this by comparing them with some pre-capitalist crisis, before the 19th century. A decrease of agricultural production resulted from bad harvests. The peasants bought fewer industrial goods such as clothes, and industry, which was still very weak, was in trouble. These crises were based on a natural (climactic) phenomenon. But merchants speculated on corn and kept it in storage to drive its price up. Eventually there were famines here and there. The very existence of commodities and money is the condition for crises: there is a separation (materialized in time) between the two operations of buying and selling. From the standpoint of the merchant and of the money trying to increase its volume, buying and selling corn are two distinct matters: the period of time between them is determined only by the amount and rate of the expected profit. People died during the period that separates production and consumption. But in this case the mercantile system only acted as an aggravating factor in a crisis caused by natural conditions. In such cases, the social context is pre-capitalist, or that of a weak capitalism, as in countries like present-day China and Russia where bad harvests still have a strong influence on the economy.
The capitalist crisis, on the other hand, is the product of the forced union of value and production. Take a car maker. Competition forces him to raise productivity and get a maximum value output through a minimal input. A crisis arises when accumulation does not go with a sufficient decrease in the costs of production. Thousands of cars may come off the assembly lines every day, and even find buyers, but manufacturing and selling them does not valorize this capital enough compared to others. So the company streamlines production, invests more, makes up profit loss with the number of cars sold, resorts to credit, mergers, government intervention, etc., eventually produces as if demand was to expand for ever, and loses more and more. Crises lie neither in the exhaustion of markets, nor in overgenerous pay rises, but in falling profits (to which workers' militancy contribute): as a sum of value, capital finds it increasingly hard to valorize itself at the average rate.
Crises do not only show how the link between use value and exchange value, between the utility and the exchangeability of a product, bursts into pieces. They do not only prove that the logic of this world is the need of enterprises to increase the amount of value, and not the fulfilment of people's needs - nor the enrichment of capitalists, as the vulgar critics of capitalism say. The important thing is the difference with pre-capitalist crises. These originated from an unavoidable necessity (a bad harvest, for instance) which mercantile relations only aggravated. Modern crises show that they have no unavoidable rational basis. Their cause is no longer natural; it is social. All the elements of industrial activity are present: raw materials, machines, workers, but they are not used - or only partially used. They are not just things, material objects, but a social relationship. Actually they only exist in this society if value unites them. This phenomenon is not "industrial"; it does not come from the technical requirements of production. It is a social relation, through which the whole productive complex, and in fact the entire social structure (in so far as production has conquered society) are ruled by mercantile logic. Communism's only goal is to destroy this commodity relation, and thus to reorganize and transform the entire society (see below).
The network of enterprises - as centres and instruments of value - becomes a power above society. People's needs of all kinds (lodging, food, "culture") only exist after being subjected to this system, and even shaped by it. 4 Production is not determined by needs, but needs are determined by production - for valorization. Offices are built more readily than needed lodgings. And many houses as well as thousands of flats remain empty for 10 months out of 12 because the owners or tenants who bought the dwelling or paid the rent are the only ones who can occupy them. Agriculture is largely neglected by capital, on a worldwide scale, and only developed where it allows valorization, while hundreds of millions of people starve. The automobile industry is a branch developed beyond people's needs in advanced countries, because its profitability keeps it growing in spite of all its incoherence. Poorly developed countries can only build factories which will yield an average rate of profit. The tendency to over-production requires a permanent war economy in nearly all advanced countries; these destructive forces are made operative when necessary, as wars are still another means of counteracting the tendency to crisis.
Wage-labour itself has been an absurdity for several decades. It forces one part of the workers to engage in exhausting factory work; another part, which is very numerous in countries like the US, works in the unproductive sector; the function of this sector is to make sales easier, and to absorb workers rejected by mechanisation and automation, thus providing a mass of consumers, and being another aspect of "crisis management". Capital takes possession of all the sciences and techniques: in the productive field, it orients research toward the study of what will bring a maximum profit; in the unproductive field, it develops management and marketing. Thus mankind tends to be divided into three groups:
-productive workers, often physically destroyed by their work;
-unproductive workers, the vast majority of whom are only a source of waste;
-and the mass of non-wage earners, some of them in the developed countries, but most of them in poor countries: capital cannot integrate them in any way, and hundreds of thousands of them are periodically destroyed in wars directly or indirectly caused by the capitalist-imperialist organization of the world economy.
The development of some backward countries, like Brazil, is quite real, but can only be achieved through the partial or total destruction of former ways of life. The introduction of the commodity economy deprives poor peasants of their means of subsistence and drives them to the misery of the overcrowded towns. Only a minority of the population is "lucky" enough to be able to work in factories and offices; the rest is under-employed or unemployed.
G) Proletariat and Revolution
Capital creates a network of enterprises which exist only for and through profit and are protected by States which are no more than anti-communist organizations, and simultaneously creates the mass of individuals who are forced to rise against capital itself. This mass is not homogeneous, but it will forge its unity in the communist revolution, although its components will not play the same role.
A revolution is the result of real needs; it originates in material living conditions which have become unbearable. This also applies to the proletariat, which is brought into existence by capital. A large part of the world's population must sell its labour power in order to live, since it has no means of production. Some sell their labour and are productive. Others sell it and are unproductive. Still others cannot sell it: capital only buys living labour if it can hope to valorize itself at a reasonable rate (the average rate of profit); they are excluded from production.
If one identifies proletarian with factory worker (or even worse: with manual labourer), or with the poor, then one cannot see what is subversive in the proletarian condition. The proletariat is the negation of this society. It is not the collection of the poor, but of those who are desperate, those who have no reserves (les sans-réserves in French, or senza riserve in Italian), 5 who have nothing to lose but their chains; those who are nothing, have nothing, and cannot liberate themselves without destroying the whole social order. The proletariat is the dissolution of present society, because this society deprives it of nearly all its positive aspects. Thus the proletariat is also its own destruction. All theories (either bourgeois, fascist, stalinist, left-wing or "gauchistes") which in any way glorify and praise the proletariat as it is and claim for it the positive role of defending values and regenerating society, are counter-revolutionary. Worship of the proletariat has become one of the most efficient and dangerous weapons of capital. Most proles are low paid, and a lot work in production, yet their emergence as the proletariat derives not from being low paid producers, but from being "cut off", alienated, with no control either over their lives or the meaning of what they have to do to earn a living.
Defining the proletariat has little to do with sociology. Without the possibility of communism, theories of "the proletariat" would be tantamount to metaphysics. Our only vindication is that whenever it autonomously interfered with the running of society, the proletariat has repeatedly acted as negation of the existing order of things, has offered it no positive values or role, and has groped for something else.
Being what produces value and can do away with a world based on value, the proletariat includes for instance the unemployed and many housewives, since capitalism hires and fires the former, and utilizes the labour of the latter to increase the total mass of extracted value.
The bourgeoisie, on the other hand, are ruling class not because they're rich and the rest of the population aren't. Being bourgeois brings them riches, not the other way round. They are ruling class because they control the economy - employees as well as machines. Ownership strictly speaking is only a form of class power that appears in particular variants of capitalism.
The proletariat is not the working class, rather the class of the critique of work. It is the ever-present destruction of the old world, but only potentially; it becomes real only in a moment of social tension and upheaval, when it is compelled by capital to be the agent of communism. It only becomes the subversion of established society when it unifies itself, and organizes itself, not in order to make itself the dominant class, like the bourgeoisie in its time, but in order to destroy the society of classes; at that point there is only one social agent: mankind. But apart from such a period of conflict and the period which precedes it, the proletariat is reduced to the status of an element of capital, a wheel within a mechanism (and of course this is precisely the aspect glorified by capital, which worships the worker only as a part of the existing social system).
Although not devoid of "ouvriérisme" and labourism (the other side of intellectualism), radical thinking did not eulogize the working class nor regard manual work as infinite bliss. It gave productive workers a decisive (but not exclusive) part because their place in production puts them in a better situation to revolutionize it. Only in this sense does the blue collar (often wearing white overalls, and possibly a tie) keep a central role, in so far as his/her social function enables him/her to carry out different tasks from others. Yet with the spread of unemployment, casual labour, longer schooling, training periods at any time of life, temp and part-time jobs, forced early retirement, and the odd mixture of welfare and workfare whereby people move out of misery into work and then again into poverty and moonlighting, when dole money sometimes equals low pay, it is getting harder to tell work from non-work.
We may well soon be entering a phase similar to the dissolution Marx's early writings refer to. In every period of strong historical disturbances (the 1840s as after 1917), the proletariat reflects the loosening of social boundaries (sections of both working and middle classes slip down the social ladder or fear they might) and the weakening of traditional values (culture is no longer a unifier). The conditions of life of the old society are already negated in those of the proles. Not hippies or punks, but modern capitalism makes a sham of the work ethic. Property, family, nation, morals, politics in the bourgeois sense, tend to decay within the proletarian condition.
H) Formation of the Human Community
The primitive community is too poor and weak to take advantage of the potentialities of labour. It only knows work in its immediate form. Labour is not crystallized, accumulated in instruments; little past labour is stored. When this becomes more common, exchange is necessary: production can be measured only by abstract labour, by average labour time, in order to circulate. Living labour is the essential element of activity, and labour time is the necessary measure. Labour time is materialized in money. Hence the exploitation of classes by other classes, the aggravation of natural catastrophes (see above, on pre-capitalist crises). Hence the rise and fall of States and sometimes empires which can grow only by fighting against one another. Sometimes exchange relations come to an end between the various parts of the civilized (i.e., mercantile) world, after the death of one or several empires. Such an interruption in the development may last for centuries, during which the economy seems to go backwards, towards a subsistence economy.
In this period mankind does not have a productive apparatus capable of making the exploitation of human labour useless and even ruinous. The role of capitalism is precisely to accumulate past labour. The existence of the entire industrial complex, of all fixed capital, proves that the social character of human activity has finally been materialized in an instrument capable of creating, not a new paradise on earth, but a development making the best possible use of available resources to fulfil needs, and producing new resources in response to needs. If this industrial complex has turned into the essential element of production, then the role of value as a regulator, a role which corresponded to the stage when living labour was the main productive factor, is deprived of all meaning; value becomes unnecessary to production. Its survival is now catastrophic. Value, concretized in money in all its forms, from the simplest to the most elaborate, results from the general character of labour, from the energy (both individual and social) which is produced and consumed by labour. Value remains the necessary mediator as long as that energy has not created a unified productive system throughout the world: it then becomes a hindrance. 6
Communism means the end of a series of mediations which were previously necessary (in spite of the misery they entailed) to accumulate enough past labour to enable men to do without these mediations. Value is such a mediation: it is now useless to have an element external to social activities to connect and stimulate them. The accumulated productive infrastructure only needs to be transformed and developed. Communism compares use values to decide to develop a given production rather than another one. It does not reduce the components of social life to a common denominator (the average labour time contained in them). Communism organizes its material life on the basis of the confrontation and interplay of needs - which does not exclude conflicts and even some form of violence. Men will not turn into angels: why should they?
Communism is also the end of any element necessary for the unification of society: it is the end of politics. It is neither democratic nor dictatorial. Of course it is "democratic" if this word means that everyone will be in charge of all social activities. This will not be so because of people's will to manage society, or because of a democratic principle, but because the organization of activities can only be carried out by those taking part in them. However, as opposed to what the democrats say, this will be possible only through communism, where all the elements of life are part of the community, when all separate activity and all isolated production are abolished. This can only be achieved through the destruction of value. Exchange among enterprises excludes all possibilities for the collectivity to be in charge of its life (and first of all its material life). The aim of exchange and value is radically opposed to that of people - General Motors, Woolworth's or nuclear power stations will never be democratically run. The enterprise tries to valorize itself and accepts no leadership but that which allows it to reach its aim (this is why capitalists are only the officials of capital). The enterprise manages its managers. The elimination of the limits of the enterprise, the destruction of the commodity relation which compels every individual to regard and treat all others as means to earn his living, are the only conditions for self-organization. Management problems are secondary, and it is absurd to want everyone to have a turn managing society. Bookkeeping and administrative work will become activities similar to all others, without privilege; anyone can take part in them or not take part in them.
"Democracy is a contradiction in terms, a lie and indeed sheer hypocrisy. . . In my opinion, this applies to all forms of government. Political freedom is a farce and the worst possible slavery; such a fictitious freedom is the worst enslavement. So is political equality: this is why democracy must be torn to pieces as well as any other form of government. Such a hypocritical form cannot go on. Its inherent contradiction must be exposed in broad daylight: either it means true slavery, which implies open despotism; or it means real freedom and real equality, which implies communism." 7
In communism, an external force which unifies individuals is useless. Utopian socialists never understood this. Nearly all their imaginary societies, whatever their merits or their visionary power, need very strict planning and quasi totalitarian organization. These socialists sought to create a link which is created in practice whenever people associate in groups. In order to avoid exploitation and anarchy at the same time, Utopian socialists organized social life in advance. Others, from the anarchist standpoint, refuse such authoritarianism and want society to be a permanent creation. But the problem lies elsewhere: only determined social relations based on a given level of development of material production make harmony among individuals both possible and necessary (which includes conflicts). Then individuals can fulfil their needs, but only through automatic participation in the functioning of the group, without being mere tools of the group. Communism has no need to unify what used to be separate but no longer is.
This is also true on a world and even universal scale. States and nations, which were necessary instruments of development, are now purely reactionary organizations, and the divisions they maintain are an obstacle to development: the only possible dimension is that of mankind.
The opposition between manual and intellectual, between nature and culture, used to make sense. Separation between the one who worked and the one who organized work increased the efficiency of labour. The current level of development no longer needs this, and this division is nothing but a hindrance which exhibits its absurdity in all aspects of professional, "cultural," and school life. Communism destroys the division between workers crippled by manual labour and workers made useless in offices.
This also applies to the opposition between man and his environment. In former times man could only socialize the world by fighting against the domination of "nature." Nowadays he is a threat to nature. Communism is the reconciliation of man and nature.
Communism is the end of the economy as a separate and privileged field on which everything else depends while despising and fearing it. Man produces and reproduces his conditions of existence: ever since the disintegration of the primitive community, but in the purest form under capitalism, work, i.e., the activity through which man appropriates his environment, has become a compulsion, opposed to relaxation, to leisure, to "real" life. This stage was historically necessary to create the past labour which makes possible the elimination of this enslavement. With capital, production (= production for valorization) becomes the ruler of the world. It is a dictatorship of production relations over society. When one produces, one sacrifices one's life-time in order to enjoy life afterwards; this enjoyment is usually disconnected from the nature of the work, which is just a means of supporting one's life. Communism dissolves production relations and combines them with social relations. It does not know any separate activity, any work opposed to play. The obligation of doing the same work for a lifetime, of being a manual or an intellectual worker, disappears. The fact that accumulated labour includes and integrates all science and technique makes it possible for research and work, reflection and action, teaching and working, to become a single activity. Some tasks can be taken in charge by everyone, and the generalisation of automation profoundly transforms productive activity. Communism supports neither play against work, nor non-work against work. These limited and partial notions are still capitalist realities. Activity as the production-reproduction of the conditions of life (material, affective, cultural, etc.) is the very nature of humanity.
Man collectively creates the means of his existence, and transforms them. He cannot receive them from machines: in that case mankind would be reduced to the situation of a child, who receives toys without knowing where they originate. Their origin does not even exist for him: the toys are simply there. Likewise communism does not turn work into something perpetually pleasant and joyous. Human life is effort and pleasure. Even the activity of the poet includes painful moments. Communism can only abolish the separation between effort and enjoyment, creation and recreation, work and play.
Communism is mankind's appropriation of its wealth, and implies an inevitable and complete transformation of this wealth. This requires the destruction of enterprises as separate units and therefore of the law of value: not in order to socialize profit, but to circulate goods between industrial centres without the mediation of value. This does not mean that communism will make use of the productive system as it is left by capitalism. The problem is not to get rid of the "bad" side of capital (valorization) while keeping the "good" side (production). As we have seen, value and the logic of profit impose a certain type of production, develop some branches and neglect others, and praise of productivity and growth is singing hymns to the glory of capital.
On the other hand, to revolutionize production, to destroy enterprises as such, the communist revolution is bound to make use of production. This is its essential "lever," at least during one phase. The aim is not to take over the factories only to remain there to manage them, but to get out of them, to connect them to each other without exchange, which destroys them as enterprises. Such a movement almost automatically begins by reducing and then suppressing the opposition between town and country and the dissociation between industry and other activities. Today industry is stifled within its own limits while it stifles other sectors.
Capital lives to accumulate value: it fixes this value in the form of stored labour, past labour. Accumulation and production become ends in themselves. Everything is subordinated to them: capital feeds its investments with human labour. At the same time it develops unproductive labour, as has been shown. The communist revolution is a rebellion against this absurdity. It is also a dis-accumulation, not so as to return to forms of life which are now gone forever, but to put things right: up to now man has been sacrificed to investment; nowadays the reverse is possible. Communism is opposed to productivism, and equally to the illusion of ecological development within the existing economic framework. "Zero growth" is still growth. The official spokespersons of ecology never voice a critique of economy as value-measuring, they just want to wisely keep money-led quantities under control.
Communism is not a continuation of capitalism in a more rational, more efficient, more modern, and less unequal, less anarchic form. It does not take the old material bases as it finds them: it overthrows them.
Communism is not a set of measures to be put into practice after the seizure of power. It is a movement which already exists, not as a mode of production (there can be no communist island within capitalist society), but as a tendency which originates in real needs. Communism does not even know what value is. The point is not that one fine day a large number of people start to destroy value and profit. All past revolutionary movements were able to bring society to a standstill, and waited for something to come out of this universal stoppage. Communization, on the contrary, will circulate goods without money, open the gate isolating a factory from its neighbourhood, close down another factory where the work process is too alienating to be technically improved, do away with school as a specialized place which cuts off learning from doing for 15 odd years, pull down walls that force people to imprison themselves in 3-room family units - in short, it will tend to break all separations.
The mechanism of the communist revolution is a product of struggles. Their development leads to a time when society forces all individuals whom it leaves with no other perspective to establish new social relations. If a number of social struggles now seem to come to nothing, it is because their only possible continuation would be communism, whatever those who take part in them may now think. Even when workers are just making demands they often come to a point when there is no other solution but a violent clash with the State and its assistants, the unions. In that case, armed struggle and insurrection imply the application of a social programme, and the use of the economy as a weapon (see above, on the proletariat). The military aspect, as important as it may be, depends on the social content of the struggle. To be able to defeat its enemies on a military level, the proletariat - whatever its consciousness - transforms society in a communist way.
"Modern strategy means the emancipation of the bourgeoisie and the peasantry: it is the military expression of that emancipation. The emancipation of the proletariat will also have a particular military expression and a new specific warfare. That is clear. We can even analyse such a strategy from the material conditions of the proletariat." 8
Up to now struggles have not reached the stage when their military development would have made necessary the appearance of the new society. In the most important social conflicts, in Germany between 1919 and 1921, the proletariat, in spite of the violence of the civil war, did not reach this stage. Yet the communist perspective was present underneath these encounters, which are meaningless if one does not take it into account. The bourgeoisie was able to use the weapon of the economy in its own interests by dividing the working class through unemployment, for instance. The proletariat was unable to use the economy in its own interests, and struggled mainly by military means; it went so far as to create a Red Army in the Ruhr in 1920, yet never used the weapon which its own social function gives it.
In a different context, some riots in the US began a social transformation, but only on the level of the commodity, and not of capital itself. These people were only one part of the proletariat, and often had no possibility of using the "lever" of production because they were excluded from it. They were outside the factories. However, the communist revolution implies an action from the enterprise, to destroy it as such. The rebellions in the US remained on the level of consumption and distribution. 9 Communism cannot develop without attacking the heart of the matter, the centre where surplus-value is produced: production. But it only uses this lever to destroy it.
Those who have no reserves make the revolution: they are forced to establish the social relations which jut out of the existing society. This break implies a crisis, which can be very different from that of 1929, when a large part of the economy came to a standstill. If the various elements rebelling against wage labour are to be unified, society will have to be in such trouble that it will not be able to isolate each struggle from the others. The communist revolution is neither the sum of the present day movements, nor their transformation through the intervention of a "vanguard." Of course such a mechanism can only take place on a world-wide scale, and first of all in several advanced countries.
The main question is not the seizure of power by the workers. It is absurd to advocate the dictatorship of the working class as it is now. The workers as they are now are incapable of managing anything: they are just a part of the valorization mechanism, and are subjected to the dictatorship of capital. The dictatorship of the existing working class cannot be anything but the dictatorship of its representatives, i.e., the leaders of the unions and workers' parties. This is the state of affairs in the "socialist" countries, and it is the programme of the democratic left in the rest of the world.
Revolution has, but is not a problem of organization. All theories of "workers' government" or "workers' power" only propose alternative solutions to the crisis of capital. Revolution is first of all a transformation of society, i.e., of what constitutes relations among people, and between people and their means of life. Organizational problems and "leaders" are secondary: they depend on what the revolution achieves. This applies as much to the start of the communist revolution as to the functioning of the society which arises out of it. Revolution will not happen on the day when 51% of the workers become revolutionary; and it will not begin by setting up a decision-making apparatus. It is precisely capitalism that perpetually deals with problems of management and leadership. The organizational form of the communist revolution, as of any social movement, depends on its content. The way the party, the organization of the revolution, constitutes itself and acts, depends on the tasks to be realized.
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 labour, with the rule: no work, no food (of course this only applied to those able to work). But the revolution did not come, and its German stronghold was crushed. Its tasks have since been fulfilled by capitalist economic growth. The material basis of communism now exists. There is no longer any need to send unproductive workers to the factory; the problem is to create the basis of another "industry," totally different from the present one. Many factories will have to be closed and compulsory labour is now out of the question: what we want is the abolition of work as an activity separate from the rest of' life. It would be pointless to put an end to garbage collection as a job some have to do for years, if the whole process and logic of garbage creation and disposal did not change at the same time.
Underdeveloped countries - to use a dated but not inadequate phrase - will not have to go through industrialization. In many parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America, capital oppresses labour but has not subjugated it to "real" domination. Old forms of social communal life still exist. Communism would regenerate a lot of them - as Marx thought of the Russian peasant commune - with the help of some "western" technology applied in a different way. In many respects, such areas may prove easier to communize than the huge motorcar-adapted and screen-addicted "civilized" conurbations. In other words, a worldwide process of dis-accumulation.
J) States and How to Get Rid of Them
The State was born out of human beings' inability to manage their lives. It is the unity - symbolic and material - of the disunited. As soon as proletarians appropriate their means of existence, this mediation begins to lose its function, but destroying it is not an automatic process. It will not disappear little by little as the non-mercantile sphere gets bigger and bigger. Actually, such a sphere would be fragile if it let the central governmental machinery go on, as in Spain 1936-37. No State structure will wither away on its own.
Communizing is therefore more than an addition of direct piecemeal actions. Capital will be sapped by general subversion through which people take their relationships with the world into their own hands. But nothing decisive will be achieved as long as the State retains some power. Society is not just a capillary network: relationships are centralized in a force which concentrates the power to preserve this society. Capitalism would be too happy to see us change our lives locally while it carries on on a global scale. As a central force, the State has to be destroyed by central action, as well as its power dissolved everywhere. The communist movement is anti-political, not a-political. 10
K) Communism as a Present Social Movement
Communism is not only a social system, a mode of production, which will exist in the future, after "the revolution." This revolution is in fact an encounter between two worlds:
1) on the one hand, all those who are rejected, excluded from all real enjoyment, whose very existence is sometimes threatened, who are nevertheless united by the necessity of coming into contact with one another, to act, to live, to survive;
2) on the other hand, a socialized economy on a world-wide scale, unified on a technical level, but divided into units forced to oppose each other to obey the logic of value which unifies them and which will destroy anything to survive as such.
The world of commodities and value, which is the present framework of productive forces, is activated by a life of its own; it has constituted itself into an autonomous force, and the world of real needs submits to its laws. The communist revolution is the destruction of this submission. Communism is the struggle against this submission and has opposed it since the early days of capitalism, and even before, with no chance of success.
Mankind first attributed to its ideas, its conceptions of the world, an origin external to itself, and thought the nature of man was to be found, not in his social relations, but in his link with an element outside of the real world (god), of which man was only the product. Likewise mankind, in its effort to appropriate and adapt to the surrounding world, first had to create a material world, a network of productive forces, an economy, a world of objects which crushes and dominates it, before it could appropriate this world, adapting and transforming it according to its needs.
The communist revolution is the continuation as well as the surpassing of present social movements. Discussions of communism usually start from an erroneous standpoint: they deal with the question of what people will do after the revolution. They never connect communism with what is going on at the moment when the discussion is going on. There is a complete rupture: first one makes the revolution, then communism. In fact communism is the continuation of real needs which are now already at work, but which cannot lead anywhere, which cannot be satisfied, because the present situation forbids it. Today there are numerous communist gestures and attitudes which express not only a refusal of the present world, but most of all an effort to build a new one. In so far as these do not succeed, one sees only their limits, only the tendency and not its possible continuation (the function of "extremist" groups is precisely to present these limits as the aims of the movement, and to strengthen them). In the refusal of assembly-line work, in the struggles of squatters, the communist perspective is present as an effort to create "something else," not on the basis of a mere rejection of the modern world (hippy), but through the use and transformation of what is produced and wasted. In such conflicts people spontaneously try to appropriate goods without obeying the logic of exchange; therefore they treat these goods as use values. Their relations to these things, and the relations they establish among themselves to perform such acts, are subversive. People even change themselves in such events The "something else" that these actions reach for is present in the actions only potentially, whatever those who organize them may think and want, and whatever the extremists who take part in them and theorize about them may do and say. Such movements will be forced to become conscious of their acts, to understand what they are doing, in order to do it better.
Those who already feel the need for communism, and discuss it, cannot interfere in these struggles to bring the communist gospel, to propose to these limited actions that they direct themselves towards "real" communist activity. What is needed is not slogans, but an explanation of the background and mechanism of these struggles. One must only show what they will be forced to do.
Taken from chapter 1 of the Antagonism published version of Eclipse and re-emergence of the communist movement . Originally written in 1972.
- 1. Marx, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844(New York: International Publishers, 1964).
- 2. Engels, Selected Writings, pp.217-218: "The modern State ...is...the ideal personification of the total national capital."
- 3. Mattick's Marx and Keynes(Porter Sargent, 1969) gives an excellent analysis of capitalist crises, although it fails to grasp the dynamics of communism (See below, "Leninism and the Ultra-Left").
- 4. F. Perlman, The Reproduction of Daily Life, Black & Red, 1969.
- 5. The concept of those who have "no reserves" was formulated by the Italian communist, Amadeo Bordiga, in the years following World War II. Bordiga's purpose was not to create a new definition of the proletariat, but to go back to the general definition. What Capital describes can and must be understood together with earlier analyses of the proletariat, for instance, the Contribution to the Critique of the Hegelian Philosophy of Law: Introduction(1843).
- 6. See Marx's manuscripts of 1857-1858, often referred to by their German title: The Grundrisse, Pelican, 1973.
- 7. Engels, "Progress of Social Reform on the Continent," The New Moral World, 4-11-1843
- 8. Engels, Conditions and Prospects of a War of the Holy Alliance against a Revolutionary France in 1852.
- 9. See The Rise and Fall of the Spectacular Commodity Economy(1965).
- 10. . Marx (notably in the 1844 article The King of Prussia and social reform, and other early works) developed a critique of politics, and opposed "political" to "social" revolution: the former rearranged links between individuals and groups without much change in what they actually do, the latter acted upon how people reproduce their means of existence, their way of life, their real condition, thus at the same time transforming how they relate to each other.
One of the very first rebellious gestures is to revolt against control over our lives from above, by a teacher, a boss, a policeman, a social worker, a union leader, a statesman... Then politics walks in and reduces aspirations and desires to a problem of power -- be it handed to a party, or shared by everyone. But what we lack is the power to produce our life. A world where all electricity comes to us from mammoth (coal, fuel-oil or nuclear) power stations, will always remain out of our reach. Only the political mind thinks revolution is primarily a question of power seizure and/or redistribution.